Interview with Joel Migdal

20 June 2014, Istanbul Policy Center

Joel Migdal is Robert F. Philip Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington since 1994. He served as Chair of International Studies Program at the same university in the years between 1981 and 1995. He was appointed to many professional activities in various prestigious associations such as; Association for Israel Studies, Harvard University Center for Middle Eastern Studies, American Political Science Association and Peking University. He is writer of numerous articles, book chapters and books as well. He received many awards from different selective associations and universities.

Melisa Mendoza: When we look at the general foreign policy of the United States where does the current Middle East policy fit in?

Joel Migdal: The Americans have made a decision that they call 'pivot away' from Middle East; meaning to be less involved in the Middle East and pivot towards Asia. Korea, Japan, South Asian States, particularly China, are the new frontiers. This decision was taken two years ago and has had almost no impact. The Middle East keeps pulling the Americans back. So, even though Obama really would like to reduce American interests and involvement in the Middle East, he is not able to do so. What policies they are going to undertake is a very big question. The events are moving faster than the policy makers.

Melisa Mendoza: Why do you think such a decision was taken?

Joel Migdal: I think for a couple of reasons. First of all, the US is becoming self- sufficient in oil. Oil, which was always a motivating factor for the interest in the Middle East, is less of an issue than it was in the past. Second, Asia is where most US trade is. That's really where the future of the global economy is going to center. Furthermore, I believe, there was tremendous frustration in the region. America had this war in Iraq which practically destroyed the United States. There was the war in Afghanistan. There are things happening in Iraq, Syria and also Turkey. There are big changes in US policy concerning Turkey, as such; there is a lot of instability and an inability to influence events. In the Palestine- Israel issue, America tried to influence change once again and failed. Thus, there is a sense of frustration, as they cannot do much in this area. The Middle East geo-strategically is such an important area that the Americans cannot just leave. It's impossible.

Melisa Mendoza: Is there an Obama Doctrine in American Foreign Policy? If you think there is, what is its position for the Arab Spring?

Joel Migdal: In my book, Shifting Sands, I say there is such thing as the Obama Doctrine. It is in some ways negative. It is negative in that it is denies the Bush Doctrine. The Bush Doctrine was one that involved unilateral US involvement, pre-emptive attacks, and a very active military policy abroad. Obama moved towards multilateralism, negotiations, and not military action. There were a lot of 'not's and not doing with what Bush did. Multilateralism, negotiations, and pivot towards Asia; these are the three legs of the stool of the Obama Doctrine.joel migdal foto

Pınar Akpınar: During Bush's time in office could he not anticipate that America would be self- sufficient in terms of oil in the recent future? Would it not be possible for the US to follow a different policy?

Joel Migdal: The oil self- sufficiency is coming from this process called 'fracking' which is actually cracking rocks and releasing oil from them. It slowly became obvious that this is going to lead to a tremendous amount of oil during the first decade of the 2000s. I would say, in the beginning Bush did not have an idea but it began to become clearer that the US is going to become self- sufficient. They are still not self-sufficient but will become so in the future.

Melisa Mendoza: In which region is oil fracking taking place?

Joel Migdal: Most of it is in the Middle West; the state of North Dakota is one major place. It is very controversial because environmentally it has a lot of negative impacts and so it is a big issue in the US.

Pınar Akpınar: It is being said that with the Iranian nuclear deal the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East. Do you consider this to be true and how do you interpret the recent developments in the Middle East?

Joel Migdal: I really do not think the US is withdrawing from the region. I think it is moving away from heavily militarized policy in the Middle East towards negotiations and diplomacy. I know that the Saudis and others are very nervous about Iran and very nervous that US is retreating. I do not think there is a retreat and we can see this from the negotiations with Iran and the intense deliberations going on in Washington about the events in Iraq. I expect some military action in Iraq by the US, probably air strikes. The US is still heavily involved in the Middle East, for better or for worse.

Melisa Mendoza: Do you think the Iran and US negotiations are promising?

Joel Migdal: Obama says that they have about 50%, maybe little less than 50% chance of success. I would say 'yes, they will succeed'. There will be a deal, most probably not within the 6 months because that is coming up very quickly. There will be a deal within the next year.

Melisa Mendoza: There are some domestic criticisms about Turkey's role in the region being exaggerated. Some believe that Turkey's position in the region was not that stable and it was not strong enough to be a mediator. What do you think about these comments?

Joel Migdal: I do not agree. I think it was well positioned at the beginning of the 2000s to play an active role. Before the 21st century, Turkey had very little interest in the Arab world. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkey was well positioned especially with its growing economy, strong military and assertive government. Once it decided to have a foreign policy in Central Asia and the Middle East, it did quite well.

Pınar Akpınar: Do you have an analysis for the transformations in the Arab Spring with your state thesis? Does it explain the tensions of state versus society in Arab societies?

Joel Migdal: I think my approach in the book really spoke how fragile these Arab states were. They looked like strong dictatorships but they were actually very fragile. They had very little penetration into many aspects of society. They were strong in security issues but in many other issues they were very weak. I will tell a story to reflect my opinion. I went to Egypt in 2005 to give a lecture there. I was walking through Tahrir Square before the lecture. I saw very scary looking people and I learned that they were the secret police. At the same time there was a pro-democracy demonstration. 25 demonstrators were attacked by the police and beaten up. Then I went to give my lecture. On my way back, I saw that the huge Tahrir Square was entirely full of soldiers. The whole square was emptied out and the soldiers were all facing out. Then I thought to myself one thing: look how scared people are of the state but look how scared the state is of the people. I was not surprised by the Arab Spring. These societies are not strong in many ways. The disintegration since 2001 is not so surprising.

Pınar Akpınar: What do you think about the 'Gezi' demonstrations in Turkey? There were similar scenes in Istanbul.

Joel Migdal: The Turkish state is a much stronger state than any of the Arab states were. I do not know much about Turkey but I guess Erdoğan is scared of the society. The state has less reasons to be scared. We should ask; does this really threaten the state or does it threaten particular power holders at a given moment. In the Middle East, it really threatened the states. In Turkey, I think it threatened Erdoğan's authority which is a growing one.

Melisa Mendoza: Has the Arab Spring created a new discourse in political science and comparative politics? Can it inspire new waves of thinking?

Joel Migdal: I do not know of a new discourse. I think it is much too soon to create a new discourse. Whether it can or not is a good question which I do not have an answer to. I hope so. It needs time. You need some perspective and need to see what is going to happen.

Melisa Mendoza: What are the political survival strategies of the society and the state? Can the societies in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya survive the new political structures and can these new states survive in the changing dynamics of the societies?

Joel Migdal: One of the things happened in the Arab states is tremendous economic dislocation. Particularly in Egypt, Syria and in Libya, but not as much in Tunisia. I think it is going to be difficult for people to fully survive. Egypt, in particular, and also the other countries are not really progressing and providing their people a basic sustainable life. I don't see that happening soon. These economies are broken and I do not see the political structures that can fix them.
About state survivals, in Syria and in Libya; it does not look like they are surviving. One possibility is what is happening in Somalia. There is an extended period of more than 20 years of a state that functions only in the capital city. That is possible and seems like the case in Libya. In Syria, the state is more functioning in particular parts of the country. However, in many parts of the country the state is absent entirely. In Egypt, the state looks like it is going to stay intact and be pretty much how it was before the Arab Spring. It does not look like a transformed state. There is a state which is repressing, especially to an important group which is the Muslim Brotherhood. It looks to be a militarized authoritarian state. Egypt was a police state before and now turned into a military state. The state will stay intact but will not become an open, democratic, and economically prosperous state. Egypt's population in 1952 was 20 million and today it's 85 million. It has a huge population with little economic wealth.

Pınar Akpınar: Do you think democracy or stability is more important in the Middle East? Would the countries in the region abandon democracy for the sake of stability?

Joel Migdal: I would say that stability is the most important thing for people who are being thrown out of their houses and people in the refugee camps. People in the Middle East, at this point, want first informal stability and then some kind of democratic state. Nevertheless, what they need immediately is stability.

Pınar Akpınar: Do you think democracy is an elite concept or does it require a level of prosperity?

Joel Migdal: There are a lot of theories in Political Science about this and definitely economic well-being is associated with democracy. Almost in every study, from the 1950s when Lipset wrote on democracy and many others today, there is definite association. I think the issue in much of the Middle East is not so much on democracy and on elections and parliament. It is about a small group monopolizing not only political power but monopolizing positions across society. If you look at Egypt in 2010, the presidents of Egyptian universities were friends of Mubarak, the heads of the major industries and labour unions as well. This is what we call 'crony capitalism'. That issue is huge. This is the major challenge. The society has to open up so there is a path to mobility for the vast majority of the people. The second element is that these societies in the Arab Middle East are overtaken by Arab nationalist ideology which really hid the fact that many people are not Sunni Muslim Arabs. They are Kurds, Shias, or from one tribe or another. There was a false unity in these societies which people like Saddam Hussein could mask by brutal tactics. In every part of the Middle East there is a need not so much for democracy, but creating viable publics where people are interacting with each other and pass their ethnic, religious or tribal lines.

Melisa Mendoza: What has been the implication of the Arab Spring to the Palestinian problem? Do you think it has made a positive or a negative effect?

Joel Migdal: On the whole it has been negative. First, Israel has withdrawn into itself. Egypt and Syria are exploding and there are refugees in Jordan. They watched the developments and they are very scared. They are much less inclined to take bold steps towards the Palestinian problem, not that it was ever too inclined to take steps before. Nonetheless, this time it is even less inclined to take steps. There is a constant debate in Israel about what is going to happen.
From the Palestinian point of view, it has been particularly detrimental for Hamas. Once the Arab Spring took place and the Muslim Brotherhood won the election in Egypt, Hamas thought everything was going to be good now. They thought they had a major ally and as a result they were willing to break with Syria; which meant breaking with Iran. Hamas is basically a child of the Muslim Brotherhood, however, it did not work out that way. Even when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power the relation with Hamas was not good and certainly is not now. Hamas is left in a very precarious position.

Pınar Akpınar: Do you think Israel is less obliged to make concessions?

Joel Migdal: I think this is the right time for Israel to act. The best thing that Israel was offered is the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002; which is still on the table and was renewed last year. This was a resolution by the Arab League saying that if the Israelis solved the Palestinian conflict, it can have more relations with the Arab states. The reason why the Arab states put that forth has to do with Iran. They see a common interest between Israel and the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to deter Iran. For Israel, this is a great opportunity and therefore there is a lot of reasons to make peace with the Palestinians. Iran is very important to Israel, however they have not done that.