Behind the Headlines: A Deeper Look



February 24: Lebanon’s Inevitable Collapse: Sectarianism, Kleptocracy, or Geopolitics?

The explosion in Beirut’s port in August 2020 constituted the largest non-nuclear explosion since World War II. It hastened a collapse in Lebanon so deep that the World Bank described it as one of the top three “most severe crises globally since the mid-19th century.” Just two years earlier, Lebanon’s political future looked quite different. After fifteen years of civil war (1975–90) and three decades of postwar neoliberal policies, Lebanese men and women had risen up against a kleptocratic ruling class that had captured and bankrupted the state. Protestors demanded immediate reforms to end the overtly clientelist structure embedded in the very core of Lebanon’s political and economic system. With the uprising cut short by the explosion and economic crisis, Karim Makdisi frames the deeper origins of these protests and asks what role geopolitics—including President Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy against Iran—played in Lebanon’s collapse. 

Karim Makdisi is an associate professor of international relations and director of the Program in Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. His recent publications include the edited volumes The Land of the Blue Helmets: United Nations in the Arab World (University of California Press, 2017, with Vijay Prashad); Between Regional Autonomy and Intervention: New Conflict Dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa (eds. Boserup et al., Danish Institute for International Studies, 2017); and Interventions in Conflict: International Peacemaking in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, with R. Khouri and M. Wählisch). 

March 3: Serial War in Afghanistan: Beyond 9/11, the Taliban, and the Blue Burqas 

While Afghanistan has recently returned to mainstream U.S. media after years of explicit neglect, coverage continues to focus primarily on the last 20 years. U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, however, goes back some 43 years to the late Cold War era, to shortly after the Soviet invasion. Drawing on nearly three decades of research in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Anila Daulatzai will trace this longer history of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, with special attention to the emergence of movements like the Taliban, to the effects on non-elite Afghans of both the extended U.S. presence and the recent U.S. withdrawal, and to terms like occupation, terrorism, liberation, women’s rights, and humanitarianism in the context of U.S.-Afghan relations. 

Anila Daulatzai is a socio-cultural anthropologist and the Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. She has taught in prisons and universities across three continents, and has been conducting research in Afghanistan as well as with Afghan refugees in Pakistan since 1995. Between 2006 and 2013 she carried out ethnographic fieldwork in Kabul and taught at Kabul University and at the American University of Afghanistan. Her past and current research projects look at widowhood, heroin use, and polio through the lens of serial war. Her writings have appeared in various academic journals, as well as Al-Jazeera English and Jadaliyya. She is currently completing her book manuscript provisionally titled “War and What Remains: Everyday Life in Contemporary Kabul, Afghanistan.”  

March 10: U.S.-Russia Conflict: What Is To Be Done?  

Many Americans see Russia today as a threat, not only to friends and allies in Eurasia but also to the very fabric of American democracy. For their part, Russians see an America that routinely uses force without United Nations approval, that leverages its privileged place in the global economy through sanctions and trade wars, and that walks away from bedrock international treaties. Each side doubles down on pressure, punishment, and provocation, with no evidence that these tactics are succeeding. Presidents Trump and Putin both said they wanted better relations, yet the last four years brought even further deterioration. Since President Biden took office, he has called for de-escalation and a return to stable, predictable relations, but the damage may be hard to reverse. While there is no “easy button” for U.S.Russia relations, there is some low-hanging fruit. With more clarity about what Americans stand for and seek to achieve, renewed investment in dialogue and exchange at all levels, and a dose of real diplomacy, we can begin to pull back from this dangerous zero-sum game.

Matthew Rojansky is director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., and one of the country’s leading experts on states of the former Soviet Union. He regularly advises governments and international organizations on high-level bipartisan initiatives aimed at reducing tensions with Russia and strengthening the U.S. commitment to nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Foreign Policy. An adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, he also serves as U.S. Executive Secretary for the Dartmouth Conference, a track-two U.S.Russian conflict resolution initiative begun in 1960. He holds an A.B. from Harvard College and a J.D. from Stanford Law School.