Donnerstag, 30. Juni 2011

Senator Webb on China – Is There a Munich Moment?

When Senator Jim Webb appears on a Sunday morning talk-show its usually related to matters of national security and one is usually well-advised to listen. Webb is certainly one of the most informed and serious voices on US foreign policy in the Senate, which is why it is a pity that he is leaving office after the end of his current term. So when Webb paid a visit to MSNBC's Meet the Press it was widely expected that he might say something interesting or provocative on either Libya, Afghanistan or Iraq. But to everybody's surprise the most controversial point he made was on South East Asian Security, namely on the South China Sea. In so many words he argued that we are approaching a “Munich moment” in the South China Sea and he rightly complained that we are not even having a debate on the issue of Asian security and Western (i.e. American) interests in the region. Gulliver, however, thinks that Webb's Munich moment comment was comparatively stupid. But was it?

Well, Senator Webb wasn't wrong in pointing out that China's behaviour is not exactly a role model in building bridges and mending fences. In fact, the People's Republic has often used small military provocations to test the strength of freshly elected American presidents. It surely was no coincidence that the Hainan Island Incident occurred shortly after President George W. Bush was elected into office and that when Barack Obama became President of the United States Chinese fishing trawlers were harassing the USNS Impeccable. The People's Republic would not have dreamed of, forgive your humble author, testing the waters like that only two decades ago. What is troubling for the United States must be a real worry for China's neighbours. And lets face it, China's territorial claims in the South China Sea are outright ridiculous and if ever accepted would basically turn a seawater state like Vietnam into a practically landlocked country. And against this background more and more of China's neighbours are looking for a counterbalance to the People's Republic by fostering closer relationships with the United States. Look at Vietnam for a moment, a country that during the presidency of George W. Bush has become a de facto US ally. The changing security landscape in Asia does merit, in fact calls for a debate on Western interests in Asia. But does China's aggressive posture and ridiculous territorial claims constitute a “Munich moment”?

The answer is a no, though not a straightforward one. Put differently, in contrast to Gulliver, I would not dismiss the point out of hand quite so quickly. There is a credible narrative here that could allow such a conclusion. I just don't think that narrative gives the whole picture. In fact, China is investing heavily in its armed forces, its first aircraft carrier will be put to the sea and start sea trials this year and it will soon have more submarines in the Pacific than the United States (which led to a remarkably ill-informed debate on subs here). And since the Chinese leadership keeps saying that the military build-up is not directed at the United States, regional leaders have every right (and good reason) to ask: well, against whom might it be directed?

But on the other hand China is still clinging to some sort of a peaceful rise and much of the perceived aggression is due to the lack of transparency in Chinese foreign policy making and the awkward nature of Chinese civil-military relations. And for the moment China is still gaining strength and hence accumulating leverage when it comes to negotiating on the territorial claims in the South China Sea. Though the Chinese leadership has probably misjudged the offset-costs by underestimating the willingness of regional powers such as the Philippines and Vietnam to look for the United States as a counterbalance. So, well, the situation is not nice and certainly not nearly as cordial as in the Baltic or the Mediterranean, but it is not on the verge to open hostilities and warfare either. It ain't pretty, but it ain't Munich.

But Senator Webb is right in as much as we need to have a debate. Because, simply put, if conventional military competition in the Atlantic (and the Indian ocean for that matter) is something we need to prepare for, well, than we need a different sort of defence planning and buy totally different stuff. Less MRAPs, more frigates, to be precise for a moment. And the time to have that debate is in fact now.

Donnerstag, 16. Juni 2011

Making Sense of the Arab Spring

I was invited to Prague this week to help make sense of the Arab Spring and spent a lovely hot day in that lovely city (So thanks for the Association for International Affairs to bring me to Prague). Usually I do not prepare written remarks for conferences, this time, however, I did. So I'll share them.

What Just Happened?

It seems to be an uncontested assumption that what happened in Egypt and Tunisia and what is still in a way happening in other countries across the Middle East is a revolution. While in a way it truly is a revolution, the label is in a way misleading. The labelling is of tremendous importance for two reasons. First, it will be decisive for the sort of lessons we draw from the current upheaval. It is important, second, because some closer analysis will allow for an explanation of why the uprisings have been successful in some instances and not in others.

Most of the time, it is assumed that the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia were successful because they were the first in line of the current revolutions and Mubarak and Ben Ali were somewhat caught off guard. The regimes in Yemen, Libya and Syria, by contrast, had some time to prepare and understood that the only way to survive in power was a brutal crackdown. That is, again, to some extent correct. But what is missing in this picture is that while the uprisings have prepared the toppling of the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, the real ouster was in both cases done by the armed forces. In both Tunisia and Egypt the threshold to the successful end of the uprisings was crossed when the armed forces refused to fire on the citizens. The refusal to take orders by the regime of the country, while without any doubt legitimate and the right decision, was technically a coup d’etat. For the success of the revolutions the two things – the uprising and the readiness to mount a coup – had to come together.

The 1952 coup by Nasser in Egypt, Lee Smith for instance argues, changed the system into a military autocracy and Mubarak could or did not alter the underlying rationale of the system thus enacted.1 He maintains that the regime in Egypt has not changed at all since in fact it has always been a military dictatorship. There is a certain irony in his view that the people protesting on Tahrir Square have basically made the same mistake as Mubarak himself, believing that Egypt had become a Mubarak family-dynasty. In this reading the people simply challenged the wrong authority. A closer look at what happened underscores his point to a certain extent: On February 10, 2011, the High Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces issued a communiqué stating that the military backed the legitimate demands of the protesters. The step was widely expected to be an indication of Mubarak's imminent departure. But Mubarak refused to resign, before being ousted by the military on the following day. At the same time, of course, this interpretation is not exactly cause for too much optimism when it comes to the chances of real regime change in Egypt.

The implications are twofold, however: First, it clearly underlines that we need to spend more time and effort to study the sort of regimes we are currently assessing. Second, it seems to me that the military's success in mounting coups in Egypt and Tunisia, ironically, is related to their comparative professionalism. The militaries in both states have been run like real armies, whereas the armed forces in Syria and Libya for instances have suffered from authoritarian interference typical for states in the wider region. In the latter cases promotions were made on the basis of political allegiance, the autocrat's patronage and ethnic loyalties. Moreover, the security services in many of these states are fractured, with paramilitary forces, special police units and intelligence services all serving as a counterbalance to the regular army. Although these fragmented security structures undermine the effectiveness of the organisations, they are also the hallmark of coup-proofing strategies.2 All in all, these strategies seem to have been partly successful in Libya and Syria.

What is Going to Happen in Egypt?

How the revolutionary process is going to spell out in the coming months and years is difficult to ascertain. But I wouldn't necessarily share Lee Smith's pessimism. The Muslim Brotherhood for instance has been among those opposition parties that entered negotiations with Mubarak-appointed vice president Omar Suleiman. Even though the negotiations broke down, some opposition parties rejected such negotiations from the outset, such as Kefaya, the National Association for Change and some leading dissidents, as Ayman Nour and Mohammed ElBaradei have also been critical from the start.3 This might have seriously harmed the Muslim Brotherhood even before the electoral process was about to begin. Moreover, it seems to me, that the Western media tends to think that the rules of politics are somehow suspended when it comes to Islamist parties. But to gain power you still need constituencies and the support of many constituencies is simply not yet committed to any particular group or party. And the Islamists are not the only ones trying to court the constituencies currently up for grabs.

The threat from Islamist organisations, moreover, seems rather vague and sometimes overstated. For one thing radical Islamist thought appears to be largely discredited. On the other hand many Islamist organisations that eventually became political parties have moved to a slightly more modernist positions over the past years. Shadi Hamid, quite rightly, described the position of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as moving toward some sort of separation between church and state.4 The Muslim Brotherhood is actively trying to court Christian votes right now, which signals the movements ability and perhaps even willingness to abandon its old slogan that 'Islam is the solution,' if only for political purposes. Moreover, Islamist parties have in the past avoided taking sensitive government portfolios when actually participating in government, such as defence or foreign affairs. Whether this trend will hold is difficult to say, but if history is any guide, I would not be outright pessimistic on Egypt's more immediate future.

It is also interesting to note that so far no leader of the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as a charismatic head who could eventually end up winning a majority in a regular election. For now, the leading contesters are Amr Moussa, former Secretary General of the Arab League, and Mohammed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The consensus in the international media seems to be that as the former head of the nuclear watchdog IAEA, ElBaradei is sort of a technocrat, good in enforcing rules and regulations. And given that Egypt badly needs a more effective government and an administration that focuses on job creation he might be the sort of a person the doctor ordered for Egypt now. I am not sure that that is an accurate depiction. For one thing, when he joined the Egyptian protests, the media jumped on the story, but support from the international community for him as a potential interim leader was lukewarm at best. The reason for this rather hesitant approach certainly is to be found in his legacy as the head of the IAEA. Even though he and the IAEA received the Nobel peace prize, the leaders in the West were not exactly pleased with his performance. In his memoirs Tony Blair described former IAEA inspector Hans Blix as someone who assessed his job in Iraq as one in which he would have to decide over peace and war. ElBaradeis attitude war largely the same. But Tony Blair rightly points out that that wasn't quite the job Blix or ElBaradei had. He was simply to assess whether Iraq had lived up to its obligations under various United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. The decision over war and peace clearly wasn't his. When it comes to ElBaradeis legacy on Irans nuclear programme the picture is not that different. Again ElBaradei perceived his task not strictly as a technocratic one, but rather a political one. His assessments were not simply based on UNSC resolutions and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but also on whether he thought there was improvement in Irans behaviour. Only again the latter wasn't his job. He even postponed the referral of Iran to the UNSC on the off-chance of improvement in Iran's cooperation catalysing Teheran's rather flexible interpretation of its NPT and UNSC obligations. In sum, he clearly was more wavering politician than technocrat. Ironically the upheaval in Egypt serves as another example of his rather lacklustre performance as a politician. He only appeared on Tahrir Square to participate in the demonstrations once the situation had matured in a way that favoured the protesters.

How Can We Explain What Happened?

Only a couple of years ago the majority of European scholars was convinced that the regimes in the Arab world were largely stable and so deeply entrenched that revolutionary change not only seemed unlikely but virtually impossible. The standard explanation for the assumed regime stability rested on an overstatement of the stabilising effect of clientelism and state patronage.5 The patronage system would allow for broadening the appeal of even autocratic regime by co-opting large portions of the elite, basically giving them a stake in regime survival. I would argue, however, that political science suffers from a lack of historical insight. The historical sciences can offer a perhaps better approach to understanding why regimes like the Maghreb dictatorships eventually fail, even tough they appeared to be relatively stable from the outside.6 Generally speaking, I would contend that every state is constantly at some place between reform and revolution. Changes in the structure of society and economics and changes in the outside environment continually call for adaptation and adjustment. Speed and extent of reforms indicate how well a country is adjusting to these changes. The need for these reforms is becoming even more pressing under globalisation. Historians like Dan Diner have long argued that the ability to productively process outside influences is the real measure for the survivability of a system. In that particular reading, political systems need to be enacting reforms on a continual basis. As a matter of fact, reform is the minimum of change necessary to avert revolutions.


Remarks prepared for the Conference: The Maghreb in the Wake of the Arab Spring: Implications for Europe, held in Prague on June, 15th. Organised by Asociace pro mezinarodni otazky/Association for International Affairs.

1Michael J. Totten, After the Fall of the Pharao, In:, [].
2Morris Janowitz, Military Institutions and Coercion in the Developing World. Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1977.
3Dina Shehata, The Fall of the Pharaoh. In: Foreign Affairs, 90, 3/2011, pp. 26-32.
4“In the past few years, instead of calling for an Islamic State, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood began calling for a civil, democratic state with an Islamic reference, suggesting a new-found commitment to the separation of church and state (although not of a religion and politics).” Shadi Hamid, The Rise of the Islamists. How Islamists Change Politics, and Vice Versa. In: Foreign Affairs, 90, 3/2011, pp. 40-47.
5See for this explanatory model Volker Perthes, Gebt dem Nationalstaat eine Chance! In: Internationale Politik, 61, 9/2006, S. 62-67.
6The ideas outlined here are heavily influenced by the late German historian Reinhart Koselleck.

Samstag, 11. Juni 2011

Gates is Right. NATO's Future is in Limbo

When NATO released its new Strategic Concept late last year I was invited to a conference of experts on transatlantic security in Wildbad Kreuth, a beautiful and mountainous retreat in Bavaria usually used by a conservative foundation. Behind closed doors we were talking about the impact of the new strategic concept and attending to the recreational needs and the comfort found in good wine. I raised the issue of NATO's partnerships during the meeting and argued that I was struck by the lack of thought NATO had given the various partnerships that already exist. I was complaining about the lack of direction and thought NATO had given the topic. While I have argued for quite some time now, that if NATO wants a future, it needs to seriously rethink the nature of its partnerships, in fact start to elevate them to serious elements of planning and decision-making (I did so as early as 2009 and should you have access to the American Foreign Policy Interests, do read it), the need to reevaluate these partnerships has in fact risen dramatically, as European capabilities are on the decline and the American appetite for stepping in where Europe falls short is clearly fading away.

Figure this for a moment. For a very long time the United Kingdom has had the fourth largest navy in the world. But that's about to change, the Royal Australian Navy is going to overtake the British, as the British are beginning to scrap some of their ships. At the height of the Iraq war, London had deployed 40.000 soldiers to Iraq, while maintaining a sizeable contingent in Afghanistan only a couple of years following a major intervention in Sierra Leone. In terms of mil-speak that meant that at the height of its commitment the United Kingdom had some eight brigades in various conflict theatres. With the new defence planning, drafted under immense pressure for some real austerity, Britain now plans to maintain a capability to deploy one and a half brigade. In the medium run, the British capability will end up being somewhat similar to the German, a mere 10.000. That's saying something, after all, since the British basically provided the European pillar to NATO. At the same time Australia and New Zealand are stepping up to the plate without any sort or representation for their taxation.

When I brought up the topic at the conference last year and complained, a very esteemed colleagues responded arguing that she meant NATO did pay attention to partnerships. And technically that's correct. There is a paragraph in the Strategic Concept that deals with partnerships, but it deals with all the partnerships at once, the global partners, the partnership for peace, etc. But the question was and still is: is this a sustainable approach given that New Zealand and Australia stepped up to the plate while we in Europe continue to trim our budgets and try bringing home a peace dividend that simply isn't there? It clearly is not and that's why one should re-read the comments made by Robert Gates at the SDA conference. Here is how he eased in:

What’s changed is the political and economic environment in the United States. I am […] essentially the last senior leader who was a product of the Cold War. […] The kind of emotional and historical attachment [to NATO] is ageing out.”
And he went on to to say: “[T]he mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country, yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.”
[I]f current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders—those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me—may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”
For most of the Cold War U.S. governments could justify defense investments and costly forward bases that made up roughly 50 percent of all NATO military spending. [...] But some two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. share of NATO defense spending has risen to more than 75 percent – at a time when politically painful budget and benefit cuts are being considered at home.” 
Gates struck a nerve indeed and reminded us to sometimes be a little more careful on the sort of policy decisions we are making. Andrew Exum has summarised the point in his typically terse way and I can only hope that it comes across (I for one am with him on that and allow myself to look at my own government):

“If Germans complain with justification that their workers subsidize Greek hair-dressers taking early retirements, it's perfectly fair for the United States to complain German workers enjoy comfy state benefits in part because U.S. tax-payers underwrite their national defense.”

Donnerstag, 9. Juni 2011

Libya: So Regime Change Is Not Such a Bad Idea After All - UPDATED

The distinction between protecting the people of Libya and forced regime change was always an artificial one or, in terms of politics, a tightrope walk. But as the war in Libya rages on it becomes increasingly clear that real protection for the Libyan people can only be achieved by the quick removal of Qaddafi and his riffraff. ICC chief prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo announced today that there is now evidence available suggesting that Qaddafi himself ordered the mass-raping of women and to that end distributed Viagra among his soldiers. Tough it has been argued by many [tough here it is being argued in German] that the allies only have a mandate to protect the people not to force the regime out of office, it seems to me that this distinction misses crucial points:

1. Not only is it difficult to establish a clear distinction between the rebels and the population. Moreover, even the attempt to do so misses the nature of the war in Libya. Though armed, the rebels are clearly not a traditional army. The Libyan rebels are, more than any other contemporary movement, an upheaval of all classes, indeed a people's liberation army. Protecting them inevitably means shielding them against Qaddafi's forces. That's awfully close to intervening on their side. No, wait a second, it does in fact mean that the international community needs to intervene on their side and that is precisely what it does. And for good reason, nothing would protect the people more than the ouster of Qaddafi.

2. When the protection of the Libyan people clearly demands an intervention on their side (which it would logically always do), how can the distinction between the R2P and regime change be maintained without ridiculing the entire endeavor? Exactly, not at all. But that raises a larger question: why should regime change be sui generis a really bad idea? Clearly, it isn't. In Syria and Libya the case seems to be an rather easy one. But what it does mean is that the attempt needs to be a wholehearted one.

Sonntag, 5. Juni 2011

Al Qaeda's Obituary

Whoever embarks on a journey to study al-Qaeda and its rise during the 1990s will inevitable come across Gerges' Far Enemy, a brilliant account on al-Qaeda's rise. Bin Laden's death and the following killing of Ilyas Kashmiri really is a major blow to the organisation and leaves it without a major figure to rally around. As the BBC put it, al-Qaeda is now on the run. But what does that mean for al-Qaeda strategically? Today, I've re-read Thomas McCabes 2010 terse Parameters article [pdf] on the strategic failures of the terrorist organisation, and he is quite right in pointing out that al-Qaeda misjudged the United States resolve, underestimated the impact of its indiscriminate killings of fellow Muslims and the lack of an attractive vision. But McCabe raises, involuntarily I shall think, a serious question. What can we learn from the now closing campaign against al-Qaeda for the fight against the next terrorist organisation?

And here is the bottom line: I am not sold on the whole idea that there will be a lot more jihadist groups in the future, which we might have to fight with military means. For one thing I haven't commented on bin Laden's death on this blog not because I wasn't tempted (I was), but because it was so surprisingly irrelevant. After Thomas McCabe comes up with a seriously apt and terse list of al-Qaeda's strategic failures, I find it surprising that he thinks similar movements might have a future. I beg to differ. Take Pakistan for example: How much of the challenge in Pakistan is really constituted by radical jihadist groups or their teachings? Or is the real challenge in Pakistan not the constant double-dealing of the ISI and flawed civil-military relations? The more I have to deal with it, the more it seems that the real security threat is the ISI. And that's exactly the point: The world moves on. Everybody knew bin-Laden's name, but how many could actually name his successor? How many American flags were burned after Navy Seals raided bin-Laden's compound? Terrorist organisations across the world have sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda, but in many cases—take al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), for example—that was a measure designed to regain some lost legitimacy and conceal the basic weakness of the organisation and in al-Shabaabs case it hardly meant anything in the first place. Sure, Islamist terrorism will remain a threat, no doubt about that. But the number of terrorist incidents has dropped sharply, countermeasures are effective and these organisations have lost appeal basically everywhere. Its gradually turning into a threat similar to the threats posed by the Red Army Faction in Germany or the Real IRA in the UK, it now longer threatens the very existence of states, well functioning states.

The Arab Spring clearly demonstrates that the next fight is about something very different and that the near enemy was toppled without reverting to any sort of violence. Communism collapsed, radical Islamist thought is discredited, something else will come up. That's the deeper meaning of the celebrations in New York and Washington following bin-Laden's death. The war is coming to a close.

Samstag, 4. Juni 2011

Libya: On that House Vote

When Wolf Blitzer says the government's been slapped in the face, I suddenly start paying attention to otherwise boring news-reports (they have a tendency to focus on the seriously unimportant, while the world is rapidly rotating on its axis. But this is not a post to lambaste the useless media and if the media thinks a congressman's tweet and Sarah Palin's nonsense bus-tour is news, so be it). But what Blitzer was commenting on was important, at least in comparison to the other bit of news mentioned here. The House of Representatives has voted on a resolution demanding that the president explains his administration's strategy on Libya, threatening to enact the War Powers Resolution with which the House could eventually demand the withdrawal of U.S. forces. So while the news-media is gearing up to publicly declare fading support for the president's Libya-campaign, I can only caution and say, well, hold your breath.

1. The House is fretting over the way the president is acting, not on the substance of acting itself. And on that they are quite right. After all, President Obama has so far refrained from explaining the U.S. role in Libya, fearing that the explanation itself might lead people to assume that the U.S. is leading the effort. I was giving a lecture last week and in the Q+A someone mentioned that the U.S. already withdrew, which is not only wrong but exactly the impression the administration was trying to create. So in demanding that the president actually explains his strategy, Congress is first and foremost stating a fact, namely that the president hasn't yet. That doesn't mean that they'll eventually withdraw their support. No such thing. What it does mean is that they want the president sitting in the Oval Office and do what a commander-in-chief is supposed to do: explain the aims, goals and principles in committing U.S. forces. And your humble author has maintained for quite some time now that its time for the president to speak to the people and the world from behind the resolute desk and not travel to West Point to, forgive me, make his point.

2. On the note of withdrawing support. Well, Noam Chomsky, don't get your hopes up. There is always a party expressing frustration over the way the president is committing U.S. forces and demanding that the president seeks authorisation from Congress first or at least, as the War Powers Resolution demands, after sixty days. That party, unsurprisingly, is the opposition party. Every White House since 1973, when the law was passed, maintained that the law is unconstitutional. After all, there is a reason that the U.S. has one of the strongest arrangements in the separation of branches of government—you know, all that checks-and-balances. So strong, that there is a strong case to be made that the 1973 War Powers Resolution infringes upon the constitutional authority of the president, who, not without reason, is actually the commander-in-chief. The law has never been enacted, because a) it would inevitably end up in front of the Supreme Court and b) even an opposition party knows that it aa) might eventually end up in the White House and bb) that it would weaken its government in the international arena and undermine morale and, well, resolution. So the Speaker's support for the bill is positively half-hearted.

3. Should Dennis Kucinich ever manage to win overwhelming bipartisan support to embarrass any president, I shall read one of the unreadable books by Noam Chomsky.

Freitag, 3. Juni 2011

Obamas Inner George W.

I was invited for a small background chat with a delegation of the American Jewish Committee last week and there it occurred to me that I haven't yet commented on President Obama's Middle East speech. I had a couple of hours on a train and decided to put them to good use and went over the text.

The first remark is more sort of a confession, really. I like the speech, its got all to it and seems much more to the point than Obama's 2009 Cairo speech. It appears to me that there is a stark difference between the Cairo and his more recent speech, the former being far more pragmatic and practically indifferent to the sort of regime that prevailed in the Broader Middle East until last year (though he did remark that representative government would be really really nice). The recent Middle East speech, however, is basically a return to the Bush doctrine, though its tilted in a more defensive direction. George W. Bush's doctrine was build on the promotion of democracy and freedom (remember the famous, I am paraphrasing here, the survival of freedom at home depends on the survival of freedom abroad). In more practical terms, what Bush wanted to achieve was a balance of power in favour of freedom and would hence help advance it. If President Obama's speech established a new doctrine, it would look a lot like the Bush doctrine, only that it is a little less thought through. One might indeed hold different opinions on the legacy of the Bush years, but to me it seems obvious that President Bush believed that democracy had to be elevated in the Middle East in order to prevail and change the region for the better. For all those who have studied neoconservative thought in greater detail, the Obama speech has had some sentences that would have made Woodrow Wilson and Leo Strauss proud. Even to Obama, it now seems, the nature of a foreign regime now does matter. But Obama is far more hesitant when it comes to the role the U.S. would need to play in fostering that change. His speech, unfortunately, hasn't changed that. He has not explained in what way the U.S. would contribute to that change or just how much assistance he thinks would be necessary to enable such change.

However, the speech is important for it realigns Obama's foreign policy with his predecessor's foreign policy or perhaps more importantly with the principles enshrined in American foreign policy for centuries. For a short while, it looked as if Obama might have his own problems with the famous 'vision thing', especially after trying to establish himself as some sort of a post-ideologue. These days are past for now and I am slightly relieved. Moreover, Obama finally concedes the potential of a democratic Iraq: “In Iraq we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy.” And he promises to be Iraq's steadfast partner. I for one find that reassuring and another indication that the new administration is finally beginning to think more long-term about the potential of democracy in the Middle East.

But my major issue is simply one of putting your wallet where your mouth is. A billion dollar in debt relief, another billion in guaranteed borrowing isn't exactly worth mentioning and only a tiny step in stabilising the democracies in North Africa. Let us not forget that Egypt received more than a billion dollars a year in Foreign Military Funding from the U.S. alone with Mubarak in power. A departure from past U.S. strategies vis-à-vis Egypt would have to include at least an idea on how to change that relationship and some indications as to what sort of assistance Washington would want to hand out in the future. Also an increase would have been a nice indication that Obama's administration does indeed welcome the change and wants to actively contribute to it. Kori Shake of the shadow government might have be on to something, when pointing out that the speech is much ado about nothing.