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2011 – An Unexceptional Year for American Exceptionalism?

2011 - An Unexceptional Year for American Exceptionalism?

2011 evidenced our inability to predict substantial change and respond to tumultuous events. The ramifications of foreign policy decisions will not show their true colors for some time. Below, I discuss notable states – Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Qatar, Cuba, Burma, Ivory Coast, Norway, Israel, and Palestine – that I believe are important because of their effects on peace and diplomacy, as well as their demonstration of how rather unexceptional American exceptionalism is. As always, please share what events you feel are important for decision making in foreign policy in the comments section below, and you can connect with me on twitter. Wishing a Happy and Peaceful 2012 to all!

I. Summary of the Past Year

A plethora of significant events occurred in 2011 that will continue to shape international relations and foreign policy strategies. For my purposes, I will focus on the decisions surrounding a few significant events that I believe will have notable long-term ramifications, good and bad.

A. US, UK, and other allies’ efforts to facilitate Palestine’s isolation

I know this can readily be lumped under ‘news of the same’ because discourse on Israel-Palestine is so entrenched, with parties on all sides talking at each other, rather than with each other; nonetheless, the US’ threatened veto of Palestine’s full state membership within the UN General Assembly is notable for many reasons. It foremost is a clear instance in which the US has placed itself as an obstructionist to Palestinian efforts to achieve liberty. This is amplified due to the US’ demonstrated inability or lack of will to cajole Israel to cease settlement expansion. I have to ask, how does the US believe Israel, Palestine, Arab states, and Arab streets will respond? What will change, or what will stay the same as a result?

I expect it to be a flashpoint for further extremism on all sides. Israel will likely react with further settlement expansion and anti-Arab political/legal measures, Palestine may seek to put further responsibility for state functions and administration on Israel to hamstring Israel and draw international legal attention, and terrorists, extremists, and states will likely capitalize on the discord to further their own political goals.

B. Focus of effort to isolate Iran

The majority of attention has been placed on delegitimizing and stymieing Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA’s most recent report was heralded by many as proof of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. (I believe the main areas of concern are built upon speculation and, moreover, that there is no legal basis to forbid certain nations from procuring nuclear weapons; this is outside of this discussion, though). The US, UK, EU, and others have taken further steps to isolate Iran and cripple its economy. In addition, the apparent covert assassination campaign targeting civilians and military personnel involved in nuclear or military programs is extremely provocative (and obviously illegal). Further tension building measures include the US’ lack of support to self-determination in Shi’i dominated Bahrain, possible removal of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) from the US’ foreign terrorist organizations list, and Israeli threats of a military incursion into Iran. US claims that Iran is behind an amateurish plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the US, as well as other planned attacks in the US, suggest that there is little hope for rapprochement with Iran. The US’ choice to avoid lending transparency and legitimacy to the claim suffers, though; for instance, the US or Saudi Arabia could hold Iran accountable if they brought Iran to the International Court of Justice, apparently an unthinkable idea.

Iran has ratcheted up the rhetoric similarly by championing its supposed disruption of Israeli, US, and other states’ intelligence networks targeting it inside and outside of Iran; it is little coincidence that these reports were released around the time that Hezbollah made similar claims. And just in case we cannot connect the dots, Hezbollah’s recent rocket attack on Israel should have driven home the point. Iran’s overtures to Turkey concerning the former’s willingness to share nuclear technology with the latter were also astute, although unlikely to be taken up. For the future, I expect little to change, minus a few more dead Iranians, maybe a military strike or two, and the continuation of sanctions; however, these may necessitate the Iranian regime to endear itself through reciprocal strikes on Israel or other foes.

C. US’ resignation to a military controlled Egypt

The US appears to have resigned itself to de facto military control of Egypt through its lack of insistence on Egyptian civilian control of the military. The idea – evidently posited by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – that the constitution will allow for an exception to civilian oversight for the military is disconcerting for Egyptians and most who support democratic principles. The possibility exists that the US will insist upon civilian control of the military following democratic election of a president, but I am skeptical; for example, the US’ highly questionable concerns over the Muslim Brotherhood and other proponents of political Islam in Egypt may be reason enough for the US not to fervently oppose such an exception. This construction would be in line with Turkey’s past model of the military being the guarantor of legitimacy, but it is problematic.

For one, the Egyptian military is a nepotistic industry in itself, which seeks not only to control governance, but also investment and commerce. Simply put, the military does not want to lose its patrons – the Egyptian people and US aid  – which have funded endless business ventures that have lined its officers’ pockets. This struggle will have serious implications for Egypt and the region, precluding the likelihood of a capable government taking office and stability taking root. Furthermore, although the military may portray this exception as allowing it to safeguard Egypt from Salafist extremism, it will likely serve the opposite by driving more recruits into the welcome arms of terrorists – note the head of al-Azhar’s recently conveyed opposition to SCAF attempts to secure control, a momentous statement from such a respected cleric.

D. Honorable mentions

Qatar demonstrated itself as a promising and adept leader in the Arab world through its involvement in contentious matters, such as Libya, this year. I expect it to serve as the new vanguard for self-determination and diplomacy in the region; to be reasonable, I do not expect it to breakout too much from the Sunni-Shi’i divide, but there is still promise.

Another point of promise is Burma (Myanmar). The Burmese government has come far in the past year, creating a semblance of democracy and releasing some political prisoners, but it still has much further to go. The release of remaining political prisoners, free and fair elections, and the ability for elected representatives to effect the will of the people will be the proof. Some believe that this is merely Burma’s attempt to rid itself of US sanctions and unify the ethnic majority so that it can then militarily confront ethnic minorities. I object to the former in light of the regime’s ability to flourish despite the sanctions, and I hope the latter is not the case. Although I place little long-term faith in the personality cult surrounding Aung San Suu Kyi, I hope that she and the overall voice of the people will protect minorities, such as the Rohingya.

Another state that I hope the US will break from its intransigence with is Cuba. Raul Castro’s support for governmental term limits and the recent allowance of private property serve great promise. I expect Obama to still be fettered by the anti-Cuba lobby, but one can only dream.

II. Most Unexpected Event

Two different events come to my mind on this question, both focused on the effect that one human can have on peace. First, I was pleasantly surprised that the Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara was able to assume his position despite the best efforts of former president Laurent Gbagbo. Violence surrounded Ouattara’s assumption of the presidency, but I hope that is finished. Only time will tell where Ouattara will lead the Ivory Coast, as well if his policies will be inclusive. For the second, an extremist, Anders Breivik, also shaped the course of things to come, albeit through his visceral views of muslims and their role in Europe. Breivik’s July car bomb and armed assault in Norway resulted in numerous deaths, but his hatred foretells that domestic terrorism will continue to plague states. Moreover, northern states will need to confront festering xenophobia, similarly present throughout the US, Europe, Russia, etc., before we witness even more devastating attacks.

III. Person/Group of the Year

The most significant actor of 2011, in my opinion, was Turkey. Its status as the setting for ongoing espionage wars between Iran, Israel, the US, and others; burgeoning role in the Near East and Maghreb, including intervention in Libya and Syria; successful subjugation of the Turkish guarantors’ of secularism – the military; nuclear ambitions; persistent support for Palestine; overtures to Hezbollah; and controversial policies towards Kurdish opposition warrant series attention. Because the US often missteps or is absent in the region, Turkey has been able to exploit discord and assert itself as a leader and facilitator. And needless to say, while I disagree with Turkey’s address of the Kurdish question, I am encouraged by its otherwise progressive and principled actions.

IV. Forecast for 2012

I already touched upon a few of my expectations for future developments, but one other notable expectation warrants discussion. On Afghanistan, I expect ISAF efforts will force operational evolution of the Taliban. I am skeptical that anyone is examining this sufficiently. For one, my experience there impressed upon me that ISAF – mainly meaning the US – cannot even record actual opposition activities, let alone try to predict their evolution. As ISAF asserts its military prowess, expect things to get even murkier and dirtier.

V. Favorite Book of 2011

Unfortunately, my time has been too limited to read any 2011 books! I was able to read a few older books that I believe are quite interesting, though, including Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones, Edward Said’s Orientalism, and Seven Pillars of Widom by TE Lawrence – all more ‘oriented’ for Near East aficionados.



Ali A. Riazi

Ali is an independent advisor on conflict and foreign affairs and an advocate for civilian protection. He has advised the Office of the Secretary of Defense, US military, NGOs, and intelligence oversight staff on topics, such as Afghanistan, civilian protection, irregular warfare, and civil-military affairs. His 13+ years of career experience have spanned humanitarian and national security circles and involved extensive experience throughout the Near East and Central Asia.

Ali earned a BA in Government & Politics (summa cum laude) and a Minor in International Development & Conflict Management from the University of Maryland, College Park. Additionally, he served as an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant in International Political Economy. He is currently pursuing an MLitt in Terrorism Studies through the University of St. Andrews.

Ali's other blog interests can be followed at, and he can be found on Twitter at!/ali_riazi.