Review: New Arab Wars

Students and faculty of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) gathered on October 2 for a book talk, “After the Arab Spring,” with Marc Lynch of the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

Not all events hosted by the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies (SIWPS) are well attended, but this one, either because of current events or the relevance of Lynch’s book to certain Columbia classwork, was filled to the brim: every seat taken, guests standing in the back, and students clustered in the doorway.

Lynch was to be discussing his recent book, New Arab Wars, published in April, 2016. It discusses in meticulous detail “uprisings and anarchy in the Middle East,” as its subtitle describes, since the events of the Arab Spring in 2011. He notes rifts between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in his writing, and pores through specific Obama administration foreign policy decisions and their impacts on politics and security in Arab countries.

Lynch, partially obscured by a centerpiece of artificial red flowers, rocketed through his thoughts at a brisk pace. Monday’s event was less of a book talk as advertised, and more of an opportunity for Lynch to discuss developments in Arab countries—of which there have been many—since the book came out.

Audience members familiar with current events in the region could keep up. Others, breathing heavily through massive gulps of free pizza and swigs of free coffee, customarily provided for lunchtime events at Columbia, probably did not.

Lynch surprised some attendees by asserting that the Middle East foreign policy of U.S. president Donald J. Trump did not vary much from his predecessor, Barack Obama.

“As long as Trump doesn’t open his mouth or tweet”—muffled snickers from audience—“the policy is not that different from what Obama was doing. Basically, he’s downgraded human rights and democracy, but the Obama administration did that too.”

A substantial chunk of Lynch’s talk was focused on the diplomatic rift in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that began this June. The GCC is a multinational group not unlike the European Union encompassing six Arab countries along the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, all GCC members, together with Egypt, broke off diplomatic ties with Qatar, another GCC member, and are imposing an economic blockade. The tensions surround claims of Qatar financing terrorism and befriending Iran, but critics note that Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is probably consolidating power and trying to weaken Qatar, a rival to Saudi Arabia’s dominance in regional affairs.

Lynch sees the rift in the GCC, a organization balancing Iran’s power in the Middle East, as bad news, and partially holds President Trump responsible. “The biggest thing that Trump has done which Obama didn’t was go that big Riyadh fest [the Arab Islamic American Summit in May hosted by Saudi Arabia], and unintentionally give them a green light to wreck the GCC,” said Lynch. The trip was Trump’s first abroad as president.

The rift formed from nebulous signals sent by Trump, Lynch argued. “The UAE and the Saudis thought that Trump was so one-sidedly on their side [against Iran and its alleged allies like Qatar] that they thought they could get away with it,” said Lynch. “They were shocked when it turned out that he was just babbling, and that actually he didn’t speak for the U.S. government.”

The largest United States air base in the Middle East, Al-Udeid, is hosted by Qatar and vital to ongoing campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. “So that’s a mistake, a big mistake, that’s going to have terrible consequences,” Lynch said of the U.S. miscommunication.

He went on to note the unlikely, ephemeral alliance forming between Israel and Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia against Iran, even with no progress on the Palestine issue. “Israel becoming a legitimate alliance partner really does change things in an important way,” he said, which raised a few eyebrows in the crowd.

“This time last year I’d have thought that claim pretty implausible, but after what we saw with the alliance against Qatar it’s starting to feel like anything is possible,” said Gretchen Baldwin, an international security policy student at SIPA, after the event.

During the twenty-minute question and answer session following the talk, an Iranian in the audience, in spite of requests from the moderator to be brief, gave a short speech demonstrating her knowledge of the Gulf alliances and Iran’s stance on the issues discussed.

Lynch addressed her comments speedily—the talk ended abruptly as the class scheduled to use the room next all but pushed the door down. As the attendees filtered out, he hurriedly signed a single copy of his book.