Posts Tagged ‘International Relations’

Munich_Eye_05_15_49_00In a recent testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security, National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen estimated that over 20,000 fighters from across Europe, North America, or elsewhere in the Arab world had left their homes to join militant groups operating inside Iraq and Syria. This figure is striking given global outrage over widely publicized executions, the depth of the US-led coalition, and extensive barriers to entry resulting from European legislation targeting would-be militants traveling to Syria. The common narrative is that despite these deterrents, potential fighters decide to join groups such as the Islamic State (IS) due to a shared religious ideology. However, this explanation is likely more convenient than accurate. Militants do not join IS because they adhere to the group’s specific interpretation or brand of Islam, but rather because of a secular combination of personal and environmental factors pushing and pulling them to the Levant.

Interviews, testimonies, and social media analyses of militants operating inside Syria and Iraq indicate that “pull” factors comraderiesuch as the yearning for adventure, seeking camaraderie, and search for purpose serve as greater internal motivators to join IS than one’s religious fervor. Within many Arab countries, youth seek to fill the “purpose void” in their lives that is the product of a lack of desirable career opportunities or social integration. Coupled with the inherent sense of adventure that most youth, regardless of faith or nationality, grapple with, a militant life in Syria can be as alluring as backpacking through Europe is for many western college graduates. Referring to fighters that had already left for Syria, several Jordanian men in a recent Foreign Policy article called IS militants “our friends and neighbors” – alluding to a pseudo-fraternal perspective of IS.

A bevy of environmental factors also provide the “push” that many militants consider in making the decision to join. An unemp;aforementioned lack of career prospects and youth unemployment rates over 29% region-wide portray IS as “a potential employer more than an ideological kinsmen” said one Jordanian man interviewed by Foreign Policy. Injustices at home in the wake of the 2011 Arab Uprisings, whether in the form of police brutality or community ostracism, perpetuate the “us versus them” mentality at the heart of many regional conflicts. Finally, a lack of faith in the West, particularly the US, to act leads many to think that they alone must turn the tide of the battle against Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad, and/or creeping Iranian influence.

Rather than the common “shared ideology” narrative used to explain why militants decide to join jihadist groups such as the Islamic State, it is more appropriate to attribute such a decision to a complex and secular blend of personal “pull” and environmental “push” factors. However, given that each potential jihadist’s motivations are inherently unique and multifaceted, perhaps a greater focus on the “how” versus the “why” would succeed in stemming the flow of foreign fighters to Syria. While significantly more expensive and intrusive, “how” factors are easier to diagnose, address, and measure. Increased scrutiny of social media, communication surveillance, social network mapping, and enhanced airport security protocols all have the ability to impede the “how” why remaining applicable to all potential militants despite their elaborate spectrum of “whys.”

Despite an uptick in effective military strikes against IS targets in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, the problem of eliminating IS cannot be completely solved with the barrel of a gun or any number of “how” remedies. Insurgencies, by their nature, focus on hearts and minds to appeal to recruits. Therefore governments and societies from which foreign fighters flow must take a critical and introspective look at the conditions they are fostering at home and realize these circumstances are far more likely to send young men and women to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria than any radicalized interpretation of Islam.

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flagsLast week prominent international relations scholar, and my personal academic idol, Stephen Walt published an insightful Foreign Policy article entitled “National Stupidity: In International Relations, Pride Goeth Before a Fall.” Inside his article, Walt outlines the valuable role that nationalism — the sentiment, belief, or feeling of identification with a particular nation — played in purging the world of some of its greatest historic afflictions (such as the rampant colonialism demonstrated by the British, French, Ottomans, and so on).  Nationalism is alive and well in modern international relations. Glancing across headlines, we rarely see a week go by where ethnic Kurds don’t flex their nationalist muscles against their Iraqi, Syrian, or Turkish overlords. Looking eastward, major Asian powers such as China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have been spatting over a series of contested rocks in the South China Sea that may or may not possess the catalytic lifeblood of most geopolitical conflicts: oil. While I agree with Walt that nationalism has negatively pervaded many of the most critical foreign policy headaches currently plaguing wonks worldwide, I think there’s a bit more to the nationalism onion that needs peeling back.

Victimization, what I loosely define as the feeling of being wronged, slighted, or harmed, has been politically operationalized to magnify nationalist sentiment for years. During my study of US-Iranian relations last semester, the underlying theme of victimization was constantly mentioned as a fundamental barrier to true social/cultural rapprochement between the two countries. Yes, major heads of state are participating in direct talks on nuclear, economic, and diplomatic prerogatives, but the feeling of victimization seems to be alive and well within both American and Iranian societies. In the opening minutes of Ben Affleck’s award-winning movie Argo, onlookers are greeted by chanting mobs, chador-adorned Iranian women, and crazed men scaling the walls of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran. I have no doubt that these fleeting minutes of Hollywood storytelling did more to sully the image of modern Iran in the minds of the average American movie-goer than any poorly-scripted sabre rattle speech delivered by Senator Ted Cruz (TX) ever could. Similarly, annual footage of a handful of fanatical Iranians burning the American flag in celebration of their conquest of our “den of spies” back in 1979 isn’t making anyone more likely to endorse the easing of sanctions. The point is, the more we paint ourselves as victims of some wrongdoing – no matter how long ago that offense might have occurred – the less likely we are to see the current situation on the ground through a moderate lens, and the more likely our governments are to commandeer our sentiment in a way that promotes an “us versus them” foreign policy. We’re seeing Chinese emotions run high as Japanese leaders refuse to visit war shrines. We’re seeing Benjamin Netanyahu and the entire IDF twitterverse dedicate immense amounts of time and effort to publicize every Palestinian “threat” (despite Israeli vows to expand settlements amidst ongoing peace discussions – but that’s another story). We’re witnessing Bashar al-Assad and his regime loyalists emphatically denounce the efforts of foreign terrorists to destabilize his and the Syrian peoples’ homes, and we’re unfortunately seeing Egypt — my country of focus — descend into chaos.

cairo-bombingToday, on the eve of the third anniversary commemorating the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on January 25, 2011, Egypt witnessed horrific (although predictable) violence inflicted against it. Three bombings rattled the Cairo metropolitan area in the early morning hours, and additional violence in form of a rudimentary bomb/clashes between protestors claimed the lives of at least a dozen more individuals. Though official spokesmen of the Egyptian regime were careful not to overtly blame the now outlawed, criminalized, detained, and terrorist-deemed Muslim Brotherhood for the attacks, surely few believe that the government is referring to anyone else as they vow to “pluck [these enemies] from the roots without mercy.” As General Sisi, President Mansour, and Prime Minister Beblawi continue to brandish the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization hell-bent on leading Egypt down the road to chaos, I fear that they may be snowballing to a point of no return. The more the anti-Morsi regime continues to portray themselves as under attack by the “others”, the more their exclusionary political platform will continue to take hold in the minds of the average Egyptian. Just as every Palestinian rockets serves the purpose of advancing Netanyahu’s right-wing ideology, every car bomb in Cairo will continue to reinforce Sisi/Mansour/Beblawi’s demonization of the Brotherhood – Egypt’s most powerful and organized political party. Granted, those that perpetrated the attacks of January 24th, the suicide bombing in Mansoura in December 2013, and other violence across the country last year, most likely have a political platform that mandates the reinstatement of Mohamed Morsi as President. However, continually condemning the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization based on the violent acts of a few individuals who have decided to manifest their political frustrations in the form of irrational violence is a foolhardy maneuver at best. Lest these very esteemed Egyptian political figures forget their history, the Brotherhood is an organization born and raised in the shadows of Egyptian politics and society. The Brotherhood was able to recruit intellectuals, consolidate power, and foster political support while operating in an ambiguous grey zone of illegality for over 80 years. Now that the Brotherhood has had a taste of political power and legitimization, a taste that they subsequently squandered by trying to abruptly accrue additional political clout in November of 2012, you cannot put the qitta (cat) back in the haqeeba (bag) and expect them to acquiesce. The Brotherhood represented a very substantial proportion of the Egyptian population who now, after having fought and died in the streets of Cairo, have expressed solidarity with their fallen political comrades even as they are met with the barrel of a gun. Continuing to condemn 10 million+ Egyptians as the “others” will only lead to additional violence, alienation, and turmoil on par, or greater than that, which we have seen today.

Egyptians of all political affiliations, genders, ages, and religious identities are suffering. No one group stands to gain from the kind of senseless violence and political exclusivity that has become the norm in Egypt. sisiGeneral Sisi, poised as he may be to become Egypt’s next president, has a lot to learn about appealing to all Egyptians before he may effectively consider himself a representative and guardian of the people. Just as Walt mentioned that nationalism can be a saving grace during times of duress, times that Egypt is surely experiencing at the moment, nationalism derived from victimization may also be the divisive factor that plunges a state into destruction. Though I think Egypt is a long way away from descending into the kind of disorder that we are unfortunately witnessing in Syria, very frightening and foreboding paths are presenting themselves. I remember playing cards with my Egyptian friends during my waning hours in Cairo last summer, and we were stunned to listen to Al-Jazeera’s coverage of ongoing clashes between pro/anti-Morsi forces on the May 15 Bridge. Crowds were flinging Molotov cocktails, chipping up pieces of the road to throw at their adversaries, and indiscriminately firing birdshot at each other with a level of furor never before seen. Though Eygptians are very proud of their ability to elicit change on January 25/June 30, they were shocked to see the type of widespread violence that their countrymen were inflicting upon each other. “Egyptians are not like this. We are not like Afghans, Syrians, or Iraqis,” I recall them saying. Now, more than 6 months after my departure from Cairo, I see the trend of mutual-victimization taking over more than I ever could have expected. If such violence is capable in Cairo, the umm al-dunya of all places, it is sadly no longer preposterous to start juxtaposing Egypt with the ongoing conflict in Syria. Walt’s article on nationalism could not have been more relevant given current developments in Egypt and around the world, however the idea of politically-instrumentalized victimization is not something that needs to be written about in prominent magazines to be pertinent. Victimization is a tool used by both the weak and strong to rally public support, and current events would suggest that world powers are increasingly viewing their adversaries through this lens. I fear that today’s violence in Egypt will serve as prelude to even bolder attacks on major metropolitan areas around the country, and that the responses handed down by the Egyptian security forces will plunge the country into even greater dichotomy. As former-president Morsi’s trial finally ensues, and as General Sisi prepares to assume his throne, Egyptians should strive to scale back the victimized undertones and make an effort to enact political decisions with the whole of the Egyptian people – women, youth, Muslim Brothers, etc. – in mind. The more the current regime tries to stifle the Brotherhood and simultaneously cast themselves as victims of the Ikhwan’s terrorism, the more likely their exaggerated condemnations will turn in to self-fulfilling prophecies.

Attention: Iran is happening.

Welcome back to al-Ra°yee, and I’ll spare you all the long-winded excuse for why the blog has been hibernating for the past several months. Egypt threw me a curve ball that I was wholly unprepared for, and picking up the pieces of a failed 8 month adventure abroad has left me “busy” for lack of another word. In any sense, it’s good to have you all back for the time being.

Rather than serve as a means to chronicle my escapades and discoveries abroad, this blog entry has found purpose elsewhere. Assuming that the majority of my readership is drawn from those friends and family members whose Facebook profiles I chronically creep occasionally look at, it appears that despite how politically-astute my network of acquaintances actually is, it is particularly quiet about certain issues in international relations that I find most pressing at the moment. Granted, the U.S. government did shut down, the ongoing Syrian civil war rages on, Egypt is still in democratic shambles, and Israel-Palestinian dialogues are fragilely underway, but I don’t see much commentary about Iran? You know, Iran: the Islamic Republic nestled between the two countries we fought in for over a decade, the country who’s upper political echelons frequently spewed anti-Israeli rhetoric and “Death to America” chants during the mid-2000’s , and the country that took 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days in 1979/led Ben Affleck to accept more awards than any person who starred in Daredevil ever should? Well, not to be overly optimistic or dramatic, but the times are a’changin. The P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, Russia, Germany) and Iran are about to begin a second round of highly-unprecedented and highly-important discussions (after a widely-acclaimed first round of discussions that came close, but no cigar, to striking a deal) on the future of Iran’s nuclear program, and you should be waiting with bated breath as much as the rest of the DC international relations intelligentsia is.

To provide some background information, Iran’s recent presidential elections yielded a semi-moderate candidate named Hassan Rouhani. Though Rouhani touts a pragmatic and moderate political platform Hassan Rouhani chooses image of key to symbolise presidential campaigncharacterized by a desire to rejuvenate the economy, respect human rights, and mend international relations, he should not be considered a true reformist akin to the efforts of former presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani. Rouhani is a regime-insider in every sense of the word having served in various high-level positions within the Khamenei regime – including as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. Rouhani was solely responsible for the last substantive nuclear deal cut between European powers and Iran in 2004 when he agreed to suspend Iran’s nuclear ambitions (much to the chagrin of Iranian hardliners) due to the widely-perceived fear of American regime change in the region. Rouhani’s experiences in the belly of the beast are not a bad thing, however. Having created an extensive network of internal regime contacts, confidants, and cohorts, Rouhani may very well possess the structural know-how and an intimate understanding of the limits of the Iranian presidency’s ability to actually elicit change. Rather than compete with the Supreme Leader on hot button issues — something his predecessors often did and failed at — Rouhani has ever-so-delicately pressed forward with his agenda while making sure to have the Supreme Leader’s blessing every step of the way. Rouhani’s leash is short and fleeting, however, and he faces widespread criticism from the status-quo hardliners who would sooner see Rouhani fold under domestic and international pressure for immediate results than actually work together to see Iran flourish like it once did. Should Rouhani fail to strike a nuclear deal soon (he is already over 100 days into his presidency, mind you), his critics at home may deem the efforts futile and revert back to a foreign policy strategy dominated by anti-Americanism and aversion to change.

iran-sanctions_0Problems and challenges to the rekindling of the relationship do not fall squarely on Tehran’s shoulders, however. Perhaps the single greatest barrier to substantively mended Iranian-American relations resides several miles down Constitution Avenue on Capitol Hill. Though the hard-hitting and invasive sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic for several years have worked/succeeded in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, an assessment shared by myself and prominent Iran expert (and guest-lecturer in my US-Iran Relations class) Barbara Slavin states that the threat of additional congressional sanctions (proposed by the bellicose Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), et al.) stands the chance to unravel all that has been achieved since Rouhani’s election. If sanctions have succeeded in illustrating for the Iranian regime that economic progress at home cannot be achieved without rapprochement with the West, then further sanctions in the wake of Iran coming to the negotiating table will only affirm to the Islamic Republic that the U.S. is not serious about coming to an agreement, that there is no incentive for them to concede any aspect of their nuclear program, and that our true motives are regime change or bust. Unfortunately, Congress’ track record for pushing through Iranian sanctions (such as those JUST PASSED in July, 2013) has a higher success rate (91%) than Peyton Manning’s current completion percentage (71%) thanks to special interests, foreign lobbying, and most significantly: ignorance. Now, rather than choc this one up to yet another ill-developed foreign policy of President Obama, it’s worth noting that the case of Iranian sanctions is something that the White House and Congress are decidedly at odds over. In fact in a recent Foreign Policy article, various State Department and White House officials condemned proposed congressional efforts for new sanctions on Iran as a “march to war” and went on to say that additional sanctions are unnecessary and could put us in a more difficult spot ….  it would play into the arguments of Iranian hardliners that the U.S. isn’t interested in a nuclear deal.

I get it, though. Skepticism and weariness of Rouhani are understandable. The West, and let’s not forget the Iranian people, endured eight venomous years under Ahmadinejad, and despite Rouhani’s election there are still regime hardliners who support an anti-Western foreign policy and generally anti-American attitude. However, for fear of reverting back to the same narrow-minded and ill-informed mentalities that have stunted U.S.-Iran relations for the past 40 years, we have to be willing to try something new now that a fruitful (and perhaps the most fruitful) opportunity has presented itself. We must be willing to extend an olive branch, let bygones be bygones, and have cautiously optimistic faith that Rouhani means what he says. For lack of having any better insight into what Rouhani and the Supreme Leader actually seek to accomplish, we must take their goodwill gestures and “international charm offensive” at face value. Gone are the days of Ahmadinejad making it easy for Americans to write off Iran as an oppressive, confrontational, and pariah nation of America and Israel haters, and we have unfortunately entered an era where the greatest obstacles to Iranian-American peace are the same individuals who would rather pout shut down their own government than negotiate with their fellow countrymen – much less a mullah from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

One week down in Cairo and wow… just wow.

living_in_cairoI expected “different”. I expected “unique”. But they didn’t tell me Cairo would be like this. Cairo (al-Qahira) is an amazing amalgam of noise, humanity, cement, river, and dirt, yet somehow it all just works. I’ve had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout western Europe in my lifetime, and I’ve even been to far corners of the United States that might as well be foreign lands (ahem.. New Orleans), but there’s just nothing that compares to being in the thick of things here. When I was growing up I assumed that the rest of the world, and the United States for that matter, acted and operated like Southern California but while utilizing different languages and wearing funny clothes. Though I’d like to think that my perceptions of international cultures has matured since then, I’ve found that my preconceived notions of Egyptian culture were far from how things actually are. Yes, there are McDonalds’, KFC’s, and Baskin Robbins in Cairo, but no amount of chicken nuggets or rainbow sherbet can shield you from all that’s going on outside your window.

First impressions:

– As expected, I was woken up at the ripe time of 3:08AM for the first call to prayer (Fajr) on my first morning in Cairo. It’s one thing to hear an adhan (and do play the 11 second clip of Hafiz Zeeshan Kasimuddin’s recitation on the right hand side of the page to hear the best version I’ve heard to date) bellowing through your windows each morning, but it’s another to hear TWENTY adhans from every local mosque steamrolling into your 7th floor apartment. To be fair, I do think the adhan is hauntingly beautiful – especially Hafiz’s. It’s something that just screams “Middle East” or “Islam”, and I’ve grown to like hearing it five times each day (the other times being 11:56AM, 3:32Pm, 6:59Pm, and 8:32PM – in case you were wondering). If nothing else, it’s a humble and frequent reminder of where I am, what I’m doing, and why I’m here. Now, on the other hand, the relentless cacophony of young men hawking melons, sodas, and butane canisters outside my window is a battle I’m far from winning at the moment.

– Everyday things are expectedly cheap by western standards. Though I realize that items here are priced proportionally with what the average Egyptian is making at his/her job, it’s hard not to act like Russel Brand/Dudley Moore in the 2011/1981 film “Arthur”. During my first few waking hours I was in dire need of an internet connection to get back in touch with the western world. I stumbled upon a cyber cafe, nestled myself between some rambunctious young boys playing Counter Strike, World of Warcraft, and Grand Theft Auto, and fired off a few requisite emails. On that note, it was a welcome sight to see Egyptian children leading childhoods similar to mine: in cyber cafes playing “shoot ’em up” games, as my father would say. These cafes are typically run by old men who barely know what a computer is, much less how to operate them, and who rely on their grandson to take a break from slaying murlocks to come manage your computer or printer. Anyway, I digress… it cost me about 7 Egyptian Pounds (or 1 U.S. Dollar) for a little less than 2 hours of computer time.  For another frame of reference, a 25 minute taxi ride from my apartment to the city center ran me about 12 L.E. (or about $1.70). This is not an attempt to brag about wealth discrepancy, but rather to shed some light onto just how different the economies of Israel and Egypt — neighboring Middle Eastern countries might I add — really are.

– Crossing traffic is everything people, blogs, etc. said it would be. There is no better way to explain it other than human Frogger. One must be deliberate, yet careful. Patient, yet hasty. Crossing the street is an invariable battle of wills, and drivers are not kecairotrafficen to being the “suckers” who let the pedestrian waste precious seconds of their time. In a game of chicken to see who is more courageous, jaywalkers extraordinaire glide between cars (often no more than 1-2 inches away from being struck) while drivers speed up and slow down to prevent or permit safe passage. When a walker has made his/her choice to venture forth, drivers often speed up to try and see if you have the nerve to keep going. Should you accept this challenge, you’ll find the car stopping just a few inches in front of you coupled with a reluctant wave of the hand as he admits defeat.

– While we’re on the subject of cars and driving, it’s worth mentioning what the overall driving experience is like in Cairo. When it comes to traffic rules, there ARE NO traffic rules. Cairo is the wild, wild, east(?) when it comes to driving, and truly anything goes. The streets have no lanes, and I have yet to see a traffic light (or sign, for that matter) anywhere in the city. Drivers are free to drive anywhere, park anywhere, and honk anytime with impunity. Regarding honking, I’m already picking up on what certain honks mean. Cairo’s streets are inundated with honking horns, and in addition to the adhans which I mentioned earlier, they have to be on a short list for new national anthem. Some honks mean “watch out, I’m wedging my 1974 Citroen sedan in between you and the median”. Some mean “I’m here on this motorcycle in your blind spot, don’t merge into me”. Some are solicitations for people to jump onto their moving minibus. Some, I’m convinced, are because they simply like the sound. All of this is in conjunction with hundreds of locals filling every available cranny in between vehicles (usually in motion) like sand over rocks. Oh- and Egyptians absolutely refuse to use anything even remotely resembling a sidewalk, and there appears no way to convince them to do otherwise.

– Shisha (hookah). Is. Everywhere. Shisha is endemic in Egypt, and anywhere there is a ledge, curb, table, or surface of any sort, there is an old man sitting there smoking on it. I had my first Egyptian shisha-sesh (say that 5x fast) tonight, and I’m sure my lungs are going to hate me for what’s in store over the next 7 months. To allay the concerns of my less-familiar friends and family back home, shisha is flavored tobacco smoked out of a waterpipe (the hookah) in cafes and among various social events. People typically smoke shisha when having a cup of tea, browsing the internet, or simply having a conversation among friends.

Takeaways:

amr and meNow that I’ve no doubt succeeded in terrifying my followers with accounts of me hopping between moving vehicles, waking up to midnight loudspeakers, and digesting 50-cent felafel sandwiches, it’s worth noting the more important takeaways from my first week in Cairo. Egyptians have to be the most hospitable and welcoming people on earth. Not because their country is full of rich historical sites and treasures and they’re trying to make a pound or two off of you, but because it’s in their DNA to be friendly and helpful towards their guests. Knowing nothing about me other than what he could find on my limited Facebook page and subsequent profile picture, my new friend Amr (who may or may not be waking up to for Fajr prayer as I write this) has taken me under his wing and shown me the beauty, charm, and plethora of mobile phones that Cairo possess. I’ve been fascinated by his stories of life as a young, in-love, future college graduate, and I hope to impart on him the same kind of cultural lessons from my home back in America.

More to come soon. Ma’a Salaama!

I arrived to IsraTelAviv_aerial(194)el after a surprisingly painless flight across the pond through Los Angeles, CA and Newark, NJ. The first leg of my flight (5.5 hours) went by very smoothly as I read a few pages of my book, took a nap, rinsed and repeated. My connecting flight in Newark was more noteworthy, however. There was a secondary screening area just outside my gate in terminal which is apparently standard operating procedure for flights headed to Israel. It was among my fellow passengers that I had my first taste of what the demography of Israel would look like: Hasidic Jews, Christian pilgrimage groups, Arabs, birthrighters, and then me. I was able to log a few hours of sleep during my 10 hour flight to Tel Aviv as I watched Will Ferrell’s “The Campaign” and Tom Hanks’ “Cloud Atlas” (which, I should add, I would prefer to watch again when not under the effect of two Unisom sleep aids).

My arrival into Ben Gurion Int’l Airport was fairly smooth. I chatted with a young New Yorker (adorned in a kippah and tallit) when in line for customs, picked up my baggage without a hitch, and met my driver for the quick ride to the hotel. My driver was a nice guy who spoke English fairly well and did not wait one minute before beginning to talk to me about the Arab-Israeli conflict (interesting given that we were in Tel Aviv, but more about that later). He pointed out the mountains that I flew over before landing, which, thanks to the IDF, “prevented my plane from being shot out of the sky by Arabs;” the mounting crisis in Syria, Obama’s recent visits, and several other topics. I spent the first night wandering around the local neighborhood and I was struck by how similar the Tel Aviv beachfront area is to the beach communities in Southern California. People rode bikes, walked dogs, licked popsicles, etc. and appeared as if completely unaware that a political/religious/cultural conflict was being waged just a few dozen kilometers to the east. After a few more blocks of roaming, I grabbed a quick shawarma sandwich and was on my way back to the hotel to catch up on some sleep.

The next day my group toured the old port city of Jaffa, and learnold-jaffaed about how Jaffa gave rise to one of the first major metropolitan and predominantly Jewish neighborhoods in the land. Jaffa is a gorgeous and picturesque old city that reminded me a lot of Toledo, Spain; a towering fortress of a city, built from rock, with lush gardens and tall steeples everywhere you look. Walking back to downtown Tel Aviv from the Old City of Jaffa I had my first introduction to the vast discrepancy of wealth and general living conditions of Arab (and also in Tel Aviv’s case, Eritrean) minorities living in Israel. Tel Aviv is an incredibly expensive city to live in, and even young/educated Israeli youth have difficulty finding good jobs and affordable housing. The neighborhoods outside Jaffa were littered with abandoned buildings, bad odors, panhandlers, and generally unpleasant vistas when compared to the exotic beach area a few kilometers north. My group and I proceeded to visit the Israeli Independence Hall, which is surprisingly lackluster in its outside appearance (as most everyone who has been there would agree). Inside, I was captivated by the story of Tel Aviv’s creation. 66 Jewish families, fed up with marginalization and lack of economic prospects in Jaffa, relocated to the sand dunes of the Israeli desert and decided to break new ground for their small society. That small enclave grew to become the second largest city in Israel, and certainly one of the most culturally vibrant. Inside Independence Hall, we also received a short (yet VERY religious, probably because of the birthright group we shared the hall with) presentation on the state of Israel’s proclamation of Independence on May 14, 1948.

We spent our final day in Tel Aviv at our own leisure. I chose to spend the day on the beach soaking up some sun, swimming a bit, and playing volleyball of course. I was very fortunate to meet up with a close friend from back in the U.S. and pick her brain about what it’s like living in Tel Aviv from an American expatriate’s point of view. Even she admitted to discovering a different Israel on the ground than the one she had grown up learning about back in the States, in both good ways and bad. After a great night of drinks, pasta, froyo, and shared stories, we parted ways and I went to bed content with all that I had learned and experienced when in Tel Aviv.

Takeaways: Tel Aviv is a beautiful, laid back, and charming city that you would swear was located somewhere in Orange County, CA if it weren’t for the Hebrew signs on every corner. As my group was told beforehand, which I later confirmed, Israelis living in Tel Aviv lead vastly different lifestyles than their counterparts in Jerusalem. Women walk around in bikinis, there are posters for gay night clubs, people drink beer on the beach as they work on their tans, and so on. Tel Avivians do not preoccupy themselves with the political turmoil that plagues Jerusalem and Israel at-large simply because they do not have to. There are few, if any, Palestinians living in Tel Aviv, and the West Bank is a foreign land too far off to the east to give any serious thought to (unless you work for one of many NGOs or embassies). Tel Aviv natives are more posh, certainly more secular, and tend to desire more metropolitan lifestyles versus more religious ones. This is not to say that Tel Aviv is immune to the realities of being inside Israel and the Middle East. In November of 2012, residents of Tel Aviv were subject to rocket attacks launched from the Gaza Strip as a result of the IDF-led Operation Pillar of Defense. Without hesitation residents huddled in their bomb shelters, as they had been trained to do, and when the ‘all clear’ sound was given they simply returned to their cafes and paddleball games to resume their normal lives. I would be remiss if I said that Tel Aviv was immune or oblivious to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it seems that they are certainly apathetic to it. Tel Avivians tend to be more preoccupied with finding a job, finding a house, and finding a beer, than they are with finding a bible, and it was very interesting to have this city be my first exposure to Israel. Jerusalem will be a lot different, I am sure, and I look forward to juxtaposing the two cities in my next post.

golden domeHello and welcome back to my resurrected blog: al-Ra˚yee: My Take on Issues in Int’l Relations! Let me apologize to what few readers I have left for the stagnation (to put it lightly) over the last few months. School, work, and other real life commitments (which I’ll get to in a minute) monopolized my time, and I sincerely regret not being able to post about the slew of juicy issues over the past several months. I had high hopes to post some of my graduate work, however the style of my writing assignments was vastly inconsistent with style of the previous posts on this site. Perhaps I will post some of my work down the road when I have a chance to creatively overhaul them, we’ll see.

This blog will be dramatically changing its focus over the next several months. I will be traveling throughout the Middle East (Israel and Egypt, to be specific) for the remainder of 2013, and feel it necessary to maintain a blog of my adventures, impressions, and thoughts. Though the blog will assume a new role in primarily chronicling my time spent in the region, it will not fail to deliver the same critical remarks about current and local events as it always has. I hope that by living in the region, I will gain a more informed perspective on issues of critical importance to Israel, Egypt, and the United States. No longer will I be the unfiltered American that you all have come to know, love, and despise, blogging from the cozy confines of his metropolitan apartment in Washington, DC. I hope to safely immerse myself in current events inside the region (the good, the bad, and the ugly) and provide critical analysis that you may not read see on CNN back home. As a disclaimer, I am no journalist — simply a student passionate about international relations — so please forgive me for my often biased, incomplete, and impulsive commentary.

I hope to contribute to this blog at least once a week (when possible), and wholeheartedly welcome any and all comments/questions about the topics of my various posts, about Egypt, Israel, Cairo, or the United States in general, or about anything you see fitting to direct my way. I hope you find my adventures provocative, insightful, and refreshing, and look forward to sharing my journeys with all of you.

Next stop: Tel Aviv, Israel — just a man, his beard*, and a laptop…

(* – for the first time in my life I am growing out my beard past the length of stubble that my various jobs somehow found tolerable. It has been about a month since shaving, and I already feel like a completely hairy new man. There’s just something about man and his infatuation with facial hair, and I’m sure you’ll see me commenting about it frequently from here on out. No shave-2013: engaged!)

Geek-HackingAmidst the plethora of U.S. national security threats buzzing in the media today, one issue stands tall amongst the others when discussed at the highest echelons of our military and legislature. Cybersecurity, or what I would call the prevention of widespread disruption, destruction, and/or capture of our invaluable electronic technology systems, has become the proverbial flavor of the year for security strategists after recent attacks stemming from places such as Israel, Iran, and the perpetually bothersome China. Senator Joe Lieberman, Sec.Def. Leon Panetta, and a host of other national security A-listers have all warned of our gaping vulnerability to a devastating cyberattack, and President Obama has gone so far as to deem cybersecurity “one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation” and that “America’s economic prosperity in the 21st century will depend on cybersecurity.”

It’s only fitting to recognize Secretary Panetta’s provocative likening of the U.S.’ current susceptibility to such attacks as a “cyber Pearl Harbor” waiting to happen, and doing so sheds light onto the strategic and defensive importance of the matter. While I agree that the U.S. is diverting an insufficient amount of time and treasure to addressing this threat, I fail to hear any experts say is how vulnerable our enemies are to the same threats that are causing the single strongest nation in the world (the U.S., if you had any doubt) to quiver in its boots. Perhaps it is the U.S.’ strategic prerogative to lull potential adversaries into a false state of security, buttering them up for a crippling blow when the time is right? Though Secretary Panetta may need to tiptoe around words like “offense” and “attack” when testifying on the Hill, I am bound by no such political correctness and will delve deeper into various facets of the U.S. cyberarsenal.

Much like its Cold War cousin, a policy of cyberdeterrence based on mutually-assured disruption (the new M.A.D.) is the most viable defensive strategy that the U.S. could adopt in this situation. Though many theorists may cite the famous “best offense is a great defense” adage to support their claim of earmarking more preventative measures, I would be remiss if I did not draw their attention to the unscathed nature in which the United States operated during the height of the Cold War. It was our investment in silos, warheads, and bombers that psychologically pummeled our adversaries into submission, not reliance on bomb shelters, gas masks, and sirens. I hope Mr. Panetta’s comments do stimulate conversation about the DoD’s use of offensive cyberwarfare tactics, especially in an era where conventional military means are quickly becoming obsolete.

Presuming that Iran and China remain the primary conductors of cyberespionage that the U.S. faces today, we should rest assured that both countries stand to suffer tremendously at the hands of cyberattacks on their home soil. The Middle East and East Asia have become not only as technologically dependent as the rest of the developed world, but are also experiencing a rapid expansion of technology usage in their respective societies despite relatively successful efforts to suppress media exposure during times of crisis. One need only look at the roles Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook played during events such as the 2011 Arab-induced revolutions*, the “Innocence of Muslims” video backlash, and the widely circulated footage of Neda Agha-Soltan dieing at the hands of a Revolutionary Guard sniper in the 2009 Iranian protests to see the full-integration of technology in each nation. Mixing a sudden denial of service from said technology, crumbling financial services, and already disintegrated public opinion towards the host regime would create an environment ripe for collapse and disarray. Therefore the rebuttal that Eastern societies are better suited to survive in “disconnected” environments (compared to the West) neglects the extent of technological development in the two regions over the past decade.

Aside from the e-assassins sitting in Pentagonian war-rooms across the river, let’s take a minute to consider America’s true e-cavalry waiting for the bugle to sound: internet-based social groups. I recognize that members ofanon U.S. Anonymous, 4chan’ers, and other internet cliques are often our government’s greatest critics, but I strongly believe that in the event that these groups’ precious intarwebz, cat pics, Call of Duty sessions, and Mountain Dew XP caches are no longer accessible thanks to Iranian or Chinese cyberattacks, the U.S. would instantaneously gain a harrowing new fighting force in the global cyber war. I’ve personally seen /b/ (a hyper-NSFW sub-community of 4chan) locate, disparage, and dismantle crooked burger-joint employees, playground bullies, and competing social websites using only commercially available software, open source image analysis, and the collective power of nationwide internet geekdom. The sheer havoc that could be wrought on informal and unsuspecting technologies abroad without presupposed legal repercussions or oversight during a wartime scenario (assuming the U.S. government would continue it’s streak of inability to prosecute and locate most domestic e-villains), could be monumental when supported with conventional military and special operations maneuvers.

To think that our enemies do not sense the same vulnerability to cyberattacks that we do, given the unprecedented amount of technological dependence that the entire world has acquired over the last decade, would be both a strategic and naive blunder. Just as fear of nuclear retaliation mitigated some of the most tense and volatile Cold War showdowns the world has ever faced, I believe the same fear of reciprocal cyberattack – whether formal or informal – are enough to keep most potential adversaries at bay. The United States wields one of the most technologically savvy, connected, and resilient societies in the world, and any attempt to drastically compromise U.S. national security in cyber capacity would surely elicit a response far more detrimental than our foes would ever expect.

That being said, your move e-thugs…

(*I say “Arab-induced revolutions” because I feel the phrase “Arab Spring” doesn’t give enough credit to revolutionary movements (like those in China) that reverberated outside of the Middle East during the same period)

(source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/12/world/panetta-warns-of-dire-threat-of-cyberattack.html?pagewanted=all)