The Estimate, a newsletter published since 1989, has been on hiatus while it converts to an online publication. In the meantime, this blog is intended to provide analysis to our loyal subscribers, who will receive subscriptions when we are up and running. Meanwhile you may still access the old archive here, and we'll be reporting more and more frequently on our progress.

Watch this space for more news, and please check out the poll of subscribers (below and right), which may add questions as time goes on.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Follow Me at MEI Editor's Blog

I never actually got this Estimate Blog going. But I've now got a blog at the Middle East Institute in my capacity as Editor of The Middle East Journal: The MEI Editor's Blog. If you find this blog and are looking for me, come on over and sit a spell.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Lebanese Presidential Elections

With Lebanon's Presidential elections -- which are conducted in Parliament, not at the polls -- due to take place sometime before President Emile Lahoud's term ends in late November, maneuvering has been increasingly intense among the various factions. The US has been issuing warnings for Syria to stay out of the Presidential elections, and some editorialists have been expressing the view that the majority (that is, the existing government of Fuad Seniora) should not be interfered with by the opposition (Hizbullah, Nabih Berri, Michel 'Aoun, and others more or less aligned with Lahoud and with Syria). This, however, overlooks the fundamental principle on which Lebanon's delicate political house of cards is based.

Even before the long Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990, Michael Hudson published a book called The Precarious Republic. Its precariousness endures. By its very genesis in the National Pact of 1943, as amended in the Ta'if Accords of 1989, the Lebanese republic depends for its survival on building consensus among its multi-confessional power blocs. This has ususally been achieved through compromise and dealmaking, through the Arab concept of shura or consultation, rather than through confrontation. The present dilemma is created by a clash between the traditional consultative approach to achieving consensus and a more Western-style concept of government and opposition in which the majority carries the day. So long as the existing government of Prime Minister Seniora has sought to identify a Presidential candidate, Hizbullah and its allies have threatened to deny a quorum in Parliament to elect any candidate on whom they have not agreed.

Hizbullah chief Hasan Nasrallah recently called for direct, popular Presidential elections. That is unlikely to take place any time soon, but it pre-empts the Western argument that by denying a quorum in Parliament, Hizbullah is thwarting an expressed democratic will.

Adding to the uncertainties as the weeks count down toward the end of Lahoud's term (already extended once, in 2004, by three years), is the role of the Maronite Church. The President must be a Maronite under the National Pact and the Ta'if Accords; various prominent Maronite politicians are jockeying for the job; so it is perhaps unsurprising that the Maronite Patriarch, Nasrallah Cardinal Sfeir, has called Maronite leaders to meet with him in seeking to guarantee that Maronites are not marginalized. (Since the President will be a Maronite, the real question is what his political leanings will be. But there is a real danger that if agreement is not reached, two competing claimants to the Presidency could emerge. That happened before, in 1989-91, and prolonged the civil war beyond the Ta'if Accords.) Arguably nobody wants a revived civil war, but many Lebanese seem to be preparing for one. The situation is explosive, and outside meddling, while inevitable (Syria certainly will continue to support its allies), may be complicated by pressure from Washington or Paris or both to avoid compromise. The Lebanese system depends on compromise, and a failure to agree could lead to things spiraling out of control.

Cardinal Sfeir is 87 years old, but the Cardinal and the Maronite Order of Monks still heave considerable influence in Lebanese politics. He has expressed concerns about the increasing divisions in the Christian community, amid fears of a possible renewed civil war.

It is precisely the complexities of Lebanon's politics of compromise that make it difficult to explain in a short essay why automatic support of the Seniora government's position by the West could be ill-advised. The political mosaic shifts dramatically. Michel 'Aoun's presence on the political scene is inexplicable to anyone trained in Western parliamentary democracies. The former claimant to the Presidency and Prime Minister rejected the Ta'if agreements, held out in Beirut through 1990 and into 1991 until finally ousted by Syrian main force. He then fled into years of exile. Yet today, 'Aoun is aligned with the Syrians and with Hizbullah against many of his former Maronite allies.

The coming weeks will determine whether the parties in Lebanon are prepared to to find a middle ground, or whether things will continue to spiral out of control until some spark (another assassination perhaps) sets off a conflagration that, like previous Lebenese crises, draws Syria, Israel and the West into a confrontation.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Deir al-Zor Raid

I've said nothing about the Israeli raid somewhere in the region of Deir al-Zor, Syria, on September 6. I assume anyone with an interest in the region has read everything, or most things, that have come out so far. There are some real puzzles here, not to mention a couple of conspiracy theories. There may even have been some deliberate diversions: I've heard it suggested that the fuel tanks dropped just inside the Turkish border may be something along that line.

I'm not going to try, at this point, to catalogue all the versions. I will, however, suggest a few observations for those who've been following the issue:

1. Only peripheral attention has been paid to the fact that the Israeli raid, if that's what it was, took place at night. This added to the surprise and, presumably, cut collateral casualties, but it also suggests that the Israelis were very confident of their target, either because it was too large or too easily identified by other means to miss.

2. Many have combented on the silence of the rest of the Arab world. But it is so pronounced that repeating the observation is not out of hand. So far as I can tell the only people who compalined are Syria (necessary, but without detail), Turkey (routine if they weren't consulted, diplomatic if they were complicit), and North Korea (which, of course, is totally incongruous unless they were involved.) Most of all, though this is a classic case of the dog that didn't bark in the nighttime.

3. It might not have been nuclear. There has been little evidence of Syrian nuclear ambitions; they have a relatively sophisticated chemical program, however, and Janes recently reported a deadly accidcent involving nerve gas in July killing both Syrian and Iranian military personnel. But if it was nuclear, it gave Israel a way of telegraphing a message to Iran without directly taking on the Iranians.

4. The Ship. Most reports indicate a North Korean ship that docked at Tartus was suspected of carrying nuclear materials. How would Israel know this? So far as I know satellite technology could not detect low-level radiation in a ship's cargo, so this presumes a close-up evaluation of the ship. Either by close approach by Israeli naval or commercial vessels (which should be obvious to the North Koreans) or agents on the ground either in Egypt (assuming the ship passed through the Suez Canal: easiest way of monitoring it fairly close to the cargo) or in Tartus itself. Either would be too sensitive a sources-and-methods question.

5. The conspiracy theories. John Bolton has been downright all over the media on this one, seeing a way to discredit the North Korean nuclear deal. Some are saying the whole thing is a setup, either to abort the North Korean nuke deal or to threaten Iran's nuclear ambitions. But in either case it's hard to see what Israel gains, since actually relations with Syria were showing signs of quiet, back-channel improvement. While neocons and others may be trying to exploit this issue, Israel took a big chance and seems to have pulled it off.

6. Right after the first reports started coming in one of the Israeli publications (which I apparently didn't clip into my Google Notebook and can't now locate) reported Israeli military officials giving each other high fives for an unknown reason during a Rosh Hashona party. The only problem is the report appeared almost a week before Rosh Hashona. You figure it out. Don't YOU celebrate New Year's Eve a week early? Sorry I can't now locate the report, but I'm sure it was an Israeli report, which means it wouldn't have been a simple mistake. Disinformation? Cover story? Plant to suggest success? (The Syrians say the Israelis didn't hit anything.)

7. Final thoughts: this was really touchy. That doesn't mean it was nuclear, but whatever it was, nobody wants to make a big deal of it. Too sensitive, obviously. And that deserves attention.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dayr al-Zor: Watch this space

Estimate readers will naturally expect an assessment of what, exactly, happened in the Dayr al-Zor area of Syria on September 6. The noise-to-signal ratio on this one is very high and the honest answer is: we don't know. But the sheer amount of obfuscation going on suggests this is deserving of attention. A longer treatment is coming soon.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Reader Poll

To our Estimate subscribers and potential subscribers:

As we try to decide how to deliver The Estimate in a more timely and affordable manner for publisher and reader alike, I'd like to ask you to respond to the reader poll (so far, just three questions, but more may be added) which youll find on the right.Thank you

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

More on the Moroccan Elections

I thought this was a good analysis, here. Morocco has a fairly well-developed political system, though not a Western one. I liked the "Makhzeno-Khobzist" phrase in the title which, for those who don't know Morocco, is explained at the end.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Moroccan Elections

Issander El Amrani has a good analysis of the recent Moroccan Parliamentary elections over at The Arabist, which will serve as a good accounting until The Estimate is fully back in the saddle in electronic form..

Coffeehouse Gossip: Mubarak Not Dead Yet

Although this is Petraeus/Crocker Day 1, I'm starting off The Estimate blog with a little of our traditional "Coffeehouse Gossip": Namely the rumors that were circulating in Egypt at the end of August that Husni Mubarak was either dead or seriously ill. Such rumors have circulated before, of course, and with Mubarak turning 80 next year, with no officially designated successor, uncertainty about the health of the man who has run Egypt for nearly 26 years (October 6 will mark that anniversary) is natural.

The semi-offiicial take is here in the English Al-Ahram Weekly, which does have the temerity to suggest that Mubarak should have spoken publicly to the nation rather than simply making a public appearance and giving an interview to Al-Ahram.

The rumors seem to have been various: that Mubarak had died, or that he was clinically dead and being kept alive until the succession could be settled, or that he had gone to France for medical treatment (as he has on earlier occasions).

"Rumors always come to the fore in August," Mubarak told the interviewer, while blaming the whole thing on the Muslim Brotherhood. Clearly, the government was nervous about the rumors and Mubarak moved quickly to show he was still alive. But since he didn't give a televised speech, was merely shown visiting an industrial town, rumors that his memory is faltering or that he is ill aren't completely dispelled.

Following the campaign to dispel the rumors (which have also been blamed on the US Ambassador, though the Embassy has firmly denied responsibility), it has also been reported that the ruling National Democratic Party has reached a "consensus" of keeping Mubarak as its Secretary-General; there'd been rumors that the job might go to son Gamal, a necessary step if Gamal is going to succeed his father. But to do it now would probably fuel the rumors about the elder Mubarak's health.

Since the downfall of Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala in 1989, there has been no clear number two in Egypt. Intelligence chief Umar Suleiman has a lot of power, but to most Egyptians he is a shadowy figure; only in the past couple of years has his picture appeared in the media. Gamal Mubarak is well-connected with (and a member of) Egypt's young, nouveau-riche entrepreneurial class, but he lacks the links to the Army and security forces that have been de rigeur in the past. Husni Mubarak probably can make Gamal his chosen heir if he lives long enough, but the jitters just seen are a reminder that he may not be able to count on that.

Launching Commentary: We're BAAACK...

Okay, I'm not sure when we'll have the electronic version of The Estimate up and running, but for those of you who've felt deprived of our commentary, you can visit this site regularly. It's free and open to the world, but the best stuff will soon be available by subscription only, and those who've paid up in advance will get a long subscription. Stand by for that. And this blog will soon either appear at or be linked from theestimate.com, once I figure out how to do that.

This is the week Petraeus comes down from the mountain with the tablets, and with General Jones and the GAO having already checked in, there's plenty to talk about, though I don't know if I'll have much to add to what the mainstream media tells you. Smaller things -- Moroccan parliamentary elections, Fatah's new efforts in Gaza, the recent reshuffle in the IRGC in Iran -- may all prove more Estimate-classic analysis. Stick around. We're back.

Saturday, September 8, 2007


I hope this weekend to get off to our readers a letter about our plans. While much is still unclear, I plan to begin using this blog as a way to keep our subscribers updated on Middle East issues until the new Estimate debuts, especially since the Petraeus/Crocker report is due so soon.

Michael Dunn

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Poll of subscribers

I will shortly be posting a number of questions for our existing subscribers, in order to begin a conversation on how to best deliver The Estimate to readers in the information age. The discussion can occur here, or in our Google discussion forum, as we seek to resume the analysis we have provided since 1989 in a more timely and useful manner.

Michael Dunn

Friday, July 6, 2007

I Mean It.

I really do.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Still Here

Really, I'm still here. Something's going to happen soon.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Who We Are

The International Estimate has, since 1989, published the biweekly newsletter The Estimate. Since early this year The Estimate has been on a publication hiatus, which is ending soon. Its main webpage is at www.theestimate.com.

A policy blog will be initiated soon. Other information will be forthcoming as well. Please stay tuned.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Coming Soon

At some point soon, something is going to happen here.