Ryan J. Suto's Blog

17 September 2012

America's Shi'a Problem

This post about the Shi'a Crescent was written for INSCT's blog and can be here.

The Arab Spring has been the dominant narrative about the Middle East since February 2011. However, a deeper current runs to which the US must pay attention. That is of the Shi’a Crescent. The Shi’a Crescent informally consists of all the states whose concentration of Shi’a Muslims is greater than the global percentage of Shi’a, about 15%: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kuwait, and Bahrain.
Many of these countries represent continuing and growing threats to regional stability. Most obvious at present is Syria. The country is engulfed in a civil war which has stalled the UN Security Council and has claimed thousands of deaths. While Assad is Allawite, a Shi’a sect, the Obama administration has shown support for the Syria opposition—consisting mostly of the majority Sunni population. This conflict has renewed tensions in Lebanon with conflict spill-over and floods of Syrian refugees. Part of that spill-over includes sectarian kidnappings which have been perpetrated by Shi’a in Lebanon this summer. These incidents still hold memories of Lebanon’s own civil war. In Lebanon many Shi’a still support Hezbollah and the Assad regime, as well. Spill-over from Syria—or an overthrow of Assad—could destabilize Iraq, as well.
While US combat troops have now withdrawn from Iraq, the sectarian stability and internal security of the state are far from reliable. This summer has been violent, with concerns that the al-Maliki government could fold under a joint Sunni Arab-Kurdish vote of no confidence.
US-Iran and Israel-Iran tensions continue to be high. The Iranian government has continually defied US-led sanctions. This past summer Iran threatened to close the strategically invaluable Strait of Hormuz in reaction to the sanctions. While this did not occur, the Persian Gulf remains tense. Bahrain had its own trouble last year: the US stood behind her interests and kept silent while the majority Shi’a population rallied against the Sunni King and his government. The Bahraini Shi’a with whom I spoke, felt that the US supports the Sunni-led government so as to prevent a successful Shi’a-led revolution in Bahrain.
Some commentators have predicted a clash of civilizations, evidence of which may be visible in Benghazi, Cairo, and Sana’a. However, the Sunni-Shi’a divide, exposed most dramatically by the Arab Spring, has lead to a clash within a civilization. In Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and Bahrain the US is clearly situated in conflict with Shi’a (only in Iraq have our actions proved more favorable for them). For domestic viewers America’s actions—and inactions—toward Lebanon, Iran, Syria, and Bahrain paint a picture of concern toward expanding Iranian influence. However to some Shi’a they paint a picture of anti-Shiism. Because of this, many Shi’a will likely continue to view the US as kingmaker, leading to more of the same resentment which has fueled terrorism over the past two decades.
When considering the views of the ‘Shi’a street’, it is in both America’s national security and public diplomacy interests to explicitly connect our foreign policy decisions with our powerful ideals of self determination and religious liberty. The next president must construct this preventative foreign policy, which is necessarily cognizant of this ancient fault line which has reawakened in the region.

15 September 2012

Student Loans: The Good and the Bad for Millennials

This post is about student loan debt and was written for PolicyMic.com. It can be found here.

Go to college and get a good job. That was the logical, two-step advice many working-class American parents gave to their children in the '80s and '90s. That’s what I was told growing up. The process seemed wholly uncomplicated: take out loans, get a degree, use the degree to get a job, use the job to pay off the loans.

But as you read this, many of us are a part of the new Lost Generation: college-educated, but drowning in student loan debt, often without a job at all, or with one which doesn’t take advantage of that increasingly expensive piece of paper on the wall. While I’m still in school, I count myself among those with a lot of money waiting to be paid after graduation.

On the other side of the world, things can work a bit differently. This summer, I had an internship (unpaid, of course) in Bahrain. There, similarly to the other Persian Gulf countries, a majority of the population consists of migrant workers, primarily from South and Southeast Asia. Most of these workers are men doing manual or unskilled jobs who send much of their already meager pay back home to support their families.

Speaking with many of these men, I heard a common lamentation: they were unable to afford higher education for their children.

According to them, there are no generally accessible programs in countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, and India to help children from cash-strapped homes attend college. The sorrow and embarrassment in the eyes of these men — often able to see their families only once a year — was heartbreaking. They were doing the most they could to provide, yet it was not enough to secure a bright future for their children.

For these families, the gatekeeper of higher education is parental wealth. In the U.S., for many the gatekeeper is either parental wealth or the willingness to take on often substantial debt. (I realize I’m neglecting the few who earn significant scholarships or work hard to take out very little debt without parental assistance.)

Hence the double-edged sword of student loans: While they give students like me an opportunity to achieve high levels of education that I would not otherwise have, they often force us to accept high levels of debt and economic strife as well.

While we often justifiably point to other Western countries with reasonable (or no) education costs, we often forget how lucky we are to even have the opportunity to be shouldered with our debt. Many of us are still in the global 1%.

This is not to say there are no legitimate complaints about the American education system — there are. This is not to say that we shouldn’t expect more from a generation which was given one of the greatest economies in history, who then turned around to give their children… this.

This is to say we must have perspective and resolve: the perspective to know where we stand in the world, and the resolve to make it better for our children. 

05 September 2012

Bahrain: Rule of Law in Post-Conflict Resolution

This post on Bahrain was written for Jurist.org and can be found here.

This was also re-post on the blog the Institute for National Security and Couter-Terrorism (INSCT) and can be found here.

On February 14, 2011, Bahrain joined the Arab Spring when thousands of protesters filled the streets, demanding economic reforms from King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and the government. Over the course of a month the scene worsened, as violence and police responses escalated. As the protests continued, a sectarian element became apparent: while the government is headed by the Sunni al-Khalifa family, a majority of protesters were Shia. A contention of the opposition is that the ruling Sunni elite is responsible for politically and economically disenfranchising the kingdom's Shia majority.
Some officials have described the government response as panicked, as many protesters were jailed and quickly convicted of crimes. The world watched the events unfold, as many human rights observers denouncedthe Bahraini government's handling of uprisings and protests. While smaller protests and incidents in Bahrain littered the international news, the most extensive police crackdowns subsided.
In July 2011, the king ordered the beginning of the National Dialogue, a forum consisting of 300 seats filled with individuals and organizational representatives chosen by the government. While the Dialogue had a promising beginning, al Wefaq, the major opposition party in parliament, pulled out of the talks because the group felt they were numerically unrepresented. Al Wefaq held 18 out of 40 seats in the lower elected house of parliament but only five seats out of about 300 in the National Dialogue. Because of this, despite producing a wealth of information regarding the concerns of Bahrainis, the National Dialogue is largely viewed as a failure.
Earlier in June of that year the king ordered the establishment of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), chaired by Professor M. Cherif Bassiouni, as an independent investigative commission. The BICI was tasked to independently analyze and evaluate the actions of the government of Bahrain during the protests and to make recommendations regarding future government actions.
On November 22, 2011, that body produced a report [PDF] which criticized many government actions and made concrete recommendations on government reform regarding human rights. Possibly due to this criticism, all major stakeholders in Bahrain have viewed the BICI as truly independent and have accepted the resulting report, which made recommendations such as:
  • • The creation of independent bodies to investigate claims of human rights violations;
  • • The compensation of victims of human rights violations and their families;
  • • The review of convictions and sentences of individuals detained during the unrest;
  • • Changes to the training of security forces and legal personnel to promote and protect human rights;
  • • Increased human rights and diversity education; and
  • • The restoration of destroyed Shia mosques.
In late May 2012, Bahrain underwent its second Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Councilwherein calls to implement the BICI recommendations were ubiquitous. It is clear that the BICI report focused on institutional failings of the government branches involved with quelling the protests, as well as functioning of the judicial system. Notably, the document did not address why individuals and groups were protesting in the first place, made no political recommendations regarding the structure of parliament or the status of Bahrain as a kingdom, had little to say in the way of programs for national reconciliation nor discussed the station of foreign workers in Bahrain, who make up 54 percent of the nation's population. Moreover, while the catalyst for the BICI was only in early 2011, sectarian clashes are not foreign to Bahrain. As such, many of the issues brought to the fore of national consciousness laid dormant in the minds of Bahrainis for decades.
After the recommendations were accepted by the government of Bahrain, a follow-up committee was createdto track the implementation of the BICI recommendations. That body released its first report on March 20, 2012. Any honest assessment of the government's response to the BICI recommendations will show that the response has been slow and steady. The follow-up committee has stated that Bahrain has made, inter alia, the following efforts:
  • • All criminal charges related to the protests have been reviewed by civilian courts and cameras have been installed in order to record any custodial investigations;
  • • A vast majority of employees dismissed for absenteeism during the protests have been reinstated;
  • • Five mosques are nearly rebuilt, work continues on nine others and eight more are slated to begin; and
  • • The government has engaged in efforts to compensate victims' families and victims of torture.
While the government of Bahrain cannot be comprehensively viewed as a single bloc (an important divide exists between hardliners and softliners), actions toward the implementation of the BICI recommendations have lagged behind international criticism — it is as if the government acts only to alleviate pressure from important external actors. Regardless of the reasons, many of the government responses are real and can be seen throughout the small kingdom.
While the BICI and its implementation are both far from perfect, the format itself is promising. The creation of the BICI by the Bahraini government and the acceptance of its findings by both the government and major opposition groups have created a common ground upon which any national reconciliation or dialogue may stand. Indeed, one can argue that a flaw of the National Dialogue effort in July 2011 was that it preceded the findings of the BICI. This is because the report includes a narrative which gives Bahrainis a common and objective account of the events following February 14, 2011, as well as recognizing that wrongs have been committed. This is a crucial step as the BICI has placed a mirror in front of Bahrain, allowing the government to honestly reflect and to make possibly fundamental changes. However, as of now the government has only reflected when its eyes have been held open by the scrutiny of the international community.
Presently, the international reconciliation toolkit includes truth commissions (The Truth & Reconciliation Commission in South Africa), indigenous conceptions of justice (Gacaca courts in Rwanda) and political process (Loya Jirga in Afghanistan), consociational democracy (Bosnia & Herzegovina and Iraq), constitutional development (Nepal) and civil society stewardship (Northern Ireland). While not all of these examples are viewed as successes, each offers a lesson for future reconciliation efforts. Bahrain now offers another alternative: the independent commission. After a conflict, an independent commission, such as the BICI, can create an objective narrative of the events of the conflict, assess causes and offer solutions. While the BICI itself neglected causes and narrowly focused on institutional reforms within the structure of the government, it can be taken as a precedent for future independent commissions with more expansive mandates. Thus an independent commission, along with other post-conflict reconciliation policies, can point the way toward transitional justice and institutional capacity building.
Unfortunately for Bahrain, due to the restraint of the report itself even full implementation of the BICI recommendations cannot complete their national reconciliation needs. Deep and serious questions remain unanswered in Bahrain such as what constitutes an acceptable level of economic and political inequality. What form of governance do Bahrainis want? What does it mean to be Bahraini? These questions will need to be addressed both within Bahraini society and the Bahraini government's treatment of those residing within the kingdom's physical boundaries. While Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa represents a moderate force within the government which is most able to navigate compromises between the hardliners and the opposition, he and his faction have soured with respect to reconciliation efforts due to early drawbacks. Without his leadership and major concessions from either the opposition forces or the hardliners, reconciliation prospects remain bleak in Bahrain.