The Doorstep: Pakistan & the Populist World Order, with Atlantic Council's Uzair Younus

Apr 7, 2022

A leader asking his second in command to keep him in power. A parliament dissolved. A Supreme Court deciding the fate of a nation. Echoes of the January 6 political crisis in the U.S. are reverberating in the current standoff in Pakistan, where "ousted" Prime Minister Imran Khan is blaming America for conspiring to remove him from power. Atlantic Council's Uzair Younus joins Senior Fellows Nick Gvosdev and Tatiana Serafin to explain a pivotal moment of change in Pakistan and how this may impact autocrats around the world.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council, Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I'm Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow at Carnegie Council, welcoming today in a bit Uzair Younus, the director of the Pakistan Initiative for the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center, who is going to speak with us about headlines that are not top of mind here in the United States but really link the world, the world of "what is going on with rulers trying to keep power," which we know a little something about here in the United States, Nick.

Can you take us through, as a setup, there are so many elections going on around the world, and everything is sort of leaning right?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Obviously we just had the reelection of Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party in Hungary against the effort of a coalition of left and right parties to try to dislodge him. There was a great deal of Western support for the opposition to try to end this period of illiberal democracy or illiberalism in Hungary. In fact, Hungarian voters at the polls not only returned Orbán to power but increased the margin of victory for Fidesz, which really speaks to this idea that populism may not be as exhausted as some people have been predicting, that the populist wave has crested.

We are seeing very interesting trends in France, where Emmanuel Macron is still leading in polls but has been dropping and Marine Le Pen has been gaining. The likelihood is that when the French hold their elections they will have to go to a runoff in which Le Pen again will be a formidable challenger.

This speaks to questions about resilience of democracies but also the resilience of small-L liberal parties against populism and against the attractiveness of populism at a time when we have the Russian invasion of Ukraine and we have all of the spillover effects around the world in terms of rising prices for food and fuel, therefore spilling over into economic slowdowns.

A guest we have had on a number of times with us at The Doorstep, Rachel Ziemba, has been tracking what is happening with sanctions.

Another one of our guests, Carolyn Kissane, has been writing very much about what is happening with European economies in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a willingness to say "sanction Russia" being balanced against the desire by politicians not to inflict too much economic pain on their constituents. That is certainly a backdrop in the French elections and it was a backdrop to Orbán's victory.

As we are hearing, these are not simply issues connected to Europe but very much across Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, with politicians who are worried about the economic impacts of the Russian invasion and aren't as quick perhaps as the United States might like to join in condemning Russian action.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think this impacts very much what is going on in Pakistan on the domestic level, and the tie between domestic politics and foreign policy can be so strongly seen there and is going to reverberate here too as we look ahead to midterms. But right now I would love to go to Uzair for his fascinating comments.

Thank you so much for joining us, Uzair. We are in the middle of breaking news, so we recognize that as we are talking today, right afterwards things might happen, but one of the reasons we asked you to speak with us is because we feel here at Carnegie Council that we need to get behind some of the headlines that aren't getting enough attention.

The world is big. Global North is very much focused on the Russia-Ukraine war. There is a lot happening in other places.

What drew me to the story about what is going on in Pakistan—and I will have you lay it out—primarily is this blame going on the United States, and I think that we need to understand what Pakistan is blaming the United States for. What is going on? If you could lay it out for us, that would be amazing.

UZAIR YOUNUS: Thank you for having me.

I will start with the fact that this is connected to the Russia-Ukraine War as well. While the United States has a history of intervening in Pakistan's domestic politics, the most recent overt attempt was made in 2007–2008 when General Musharraf, the dictator, was on his way out. At that time, the George Bush administration, Condoleezza Rice and others, were having conversations with Pakistani leadership, civilian and military, in terms of what that democratic transition ought to look like. It is not that the United States has not intervened in Pakistan's domestic affairs. It has a long history.

The most recent conspiracy or "foreign plot" which is outlandish by outgoing prime minister Imran Khan is that he received a cable from the top diplomat in Washington, Ambassador Asad Majeed Khan, who is now the ambassador to Europe in Brussels, that said that he had met over a dinner or a meeting with Donald Lu and had a wide-ranging conversation.

In that conversation allegedly a threat was made saying, according to the government, the prime minister, and his interlocutors, that the United States basically conveyed a message that this vote of no confidence that is in Parliament, where Parliament is exercising its constitutional right to oust a prime minister, is going to have repercussions on the relationship. What they said was that the repercussions would be that if the vote of no confidence succeeds, that is, Imran Khan is no longer prime minister, all the past issues in the relationship will be "forgiven," and if Imran Khan remains prime minister, the relationship will be in a terrible sort of situation.

Prime Minister Khan in one of his rallies a couple of weeks ago waved a letter and said, "I have this letter that proves that there is a conspiracy and that the opposition are traitors and are conspiring to oust me." That really started a debate in Pakistan where the prime minister's party Tehreek-e-Insaf began blaming the United States. The opposition and others, including the security establishment in background conversations, made the case that there was no such evidence, but the debate continued.

Fast-forward to this past Sunday, which is when the vote was supposed to happen in Parliament. Parliament convenes, everyone is glued to their screens, and the law minister, who was made law minister just the day before the vote was supposed to happen, gets on the floor of the house and says: "Article 5 of the Constitution says that we are all supposed to be loyal to the constitution, there is a foreign plot, and so Mr. Speaker"—the deputy speaker was presiding at this assembly session—"what do you think about this?"

Very quickly the deputy speaker got up and said, "Because there is a conspiracy and a foreign plot, the motion to move a vote of no confidence is rejected." He said this all so quickly—it happened within a matter of minutes—that the statement he was reading off of actually did not have his name. It had the name of the actual speaker, not the deputy speaker. He read the name of the actual speaker and dissolved Parliament.

The opposition has been protesting since then. They have gone to the Supreme Court to argue that this was an unconstitutional decision, and Pakistan as we speak is in the midst of a constitutional crisis. There is no federal government, and the Supreme Court is imminently going to make a decision on whether or not the speaker's ruling was constitutional or not. [Editor's note: Just after this podcast was published, the Pakistan Supreme Court ruled that the "move to block a no-confidence vote was unconstitutional."]

TATIANA SERAFIN: I notice that you said Prime Minister Imran Khan is already ousted. What are your predictions of how the Supreme Court is going to rule, and will that be accepted?

UZAIR YOUNUS: Let me add some context to why I say he is ousted. After the decision was made, Prime Minister Khan went on live television and said that he is asking the president of the country to dissolve the lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, and that the government stands dissolved, so there is no cabinet. But there is a stipulation in the Constitution where the president may ask the prime minister to remain as prime minister while the caretaker process, the constitutional process for elections, moves forward. So he is still prime minister technically, from a legal perspective, but he has clearly lost the confidence of the majority that he had in Parliament, which at this point stands dissolved.

My view on this is that the country is looking at early elections. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has a history, which in legal terms is called the doctrine of necessity—it goes back to the 1950s—where the Supreme Court has often said that in the greater national interest a coup is okay, breaking the Constitution is okay, and getting rid of the Assembly is okay because we have moved far into the process, so let elections happen. The indications at this point are—and there is a lot of confusion still—that we are looking at early elections.

The reason why we are looking at early elections is because Pakistan is also in the midst of an economic crisis at this point. The country has two months' worth of imports left. The International Monetary Fund program is in a state of flux and is basically paused at this point. Pakistan's Eurobond yields are through the roof. Its credit default risk is through the roof.

It needs a reversal of policies that Khan rolled out over the last month, including a cut and then a freeze to petroleum prices. At this point, Pakistan's petroleum prices do not reflect the market price out there. Whoever comes next has to reverse all of that. That costs political capital. So I think the Supreme Court may say: "Why don't all of you just move towards elections, bring in a caretaker setup to stabilize the situation politically and economically, and let's look forward?"

A lot of lawyers are also arguing that that is not the business of the Supreme Court and that the Supreme Court should put an end to this doctrine of necessity, weighing its judgments in the national interest, and just look at the Constitution that constitutionally what the deputy speaker and what the prime minister did on Sunday was unconstitutional and they need to roll back and restore the Assembly.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: You raised the point of petroleum prices, fuel prices, in Pakistan, and of course that ties us directly back to the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but also in how the United States has been encouraging countries—not just simply its Euro-Atlantic and G7 partners but really the Global South as a whole—to join it in isolating Russia through economic sanctions. Yet, particularly in South Asia, the reaction has been— as you said, fuel, food prices, and the question of domestic economics; that while the invasion of Ukraine is a European tragedy, it is not necessarily South Asia's or Africa's responsibility to take the hit for pressuring Russia when countries depend on Russia for food, fuel, and for critical raw materials.

How is this playing out in the context of the government crisis in Pakistan, the U.S. demands on Pakistan, on India, China, and others to really interrupt their trade with Russia over Ukraine, even perhaps, as you pointed out, at the cost of very clear domestic issues about food and fuel prices, which are core doorstep issues for politicians in any country?

UZAIR YOUNUS: Also on the Pakistan-Russia side the issue that Imran Khan as prime minister has argued why there is a foreign plot by the United States is because he has tried to reach out to Russia in the last few weeks. Pakistan's outreach to Russia has been in the works for a long period of time. Primarily because of the need to balance its relationships as the United States gets closer to India, Pakistan needs to find other friends that it believes are going to be its own strategic friends in the long term.

Imran Khan met Vladimir Putin at the Winter Olympics in China. He subsequently agreed to visit Moscow. He was in Moscow the day the invasion began, and so he is claiming that the United States is punishing Pakistan for his outreach to Russia and the neutrality it has had in terms of the votes at the United Nations. That is the argument.

On the energy side, Pakistan does not buy any significant amount of Russian oil. In fact, its refineries are not equipped to refine Russian oil. It is mainly a purchaser of energy from the Gulf, so it doesn't impact the country in the sense that it is not like India, which is seeking to buy Russian oil at a discount or things like that because it is not set up to do that.

Where it is having an impact is higher energy prices. The wheat output this year has been lower than expected, so there is the expectation that Pakistan has to go into the wheat markets. When it did that two years ago the most significant contributors for Pakistani wheat imports were Russia and Ukraine, so there is that problem.

Fertilizer prices are through the roof, which has a medium-term impact on the next harvest season in terms of what farmers can afford, so really that is the Russian dynamic in Pakistan. The prime minister has argued that he is pursuing an independent foreign policy, that Pakistan is being made to pay a cost, and his government is being overthrown because of that independence.

TATIANA SERAFIN: How is this playing out on the street level in terms of anti-American sentiment? What do we need to be concerned about here in the United States about this feeling and this supposed conspiracy?

UZAIR YOUNUS: Pakistan is no stranger to anti-American sentiment. Over the years, if you look at Pew surveys, anti-American sentiment has always been there. It has grown since 9/11 and the War on Terror because of the blowback Pakistan had in terms of drone strikes, terror activity, and stuff like that.

Just a couple of days ago, Gallup did a snap poll where one of the questions was related to perceptions of the United States, and the majority of the respondents in that poll, even though it was a snap poll, said that they viewed the United States as an enemy and not as a friend.

So there is this long-term issue. Having said that, it is also important to understand that among the elites in Pakistan there is a broad recognition that the United States and Europe are important strategic partners, not only because of economic reasons—the vast majority of Pakistan's exports go to the United States and the European Union—but also because of cultural diaspora and investment ties, which are far deeper than with China or Russia in terms of the time horizon and the fact that people have relatives living in the United States and in the European Union more so than they do in Moscow or Beijing, for example. So there is that recognition to balance that out.

We saw this come out in the open a few days ago at the Islamabad Security Dialogue, that while the prime minister and his government were making an argument for an independent foreign policy and why the outreach to Russia is important, the chief of the army, perhaps the strongest man in the country at this point in time, very openly said that the relationship with the United States is "strategic," that it needs to be deepened, and that Pakistan must consider Western interests. In fact, to my understanding, this was the first time where a senior Pakistani official had ever come close to condemning Russia for the invasion of Ukraine.

I think it is important to understand the fact that while some Pakistanis argue that neutrality is the best path forward, I disagree; and the reason for that is that if Pakistan looks at the logic that the Russians have put forward of why they have invaded Ukraine, a lot of those things can apply to Pakistan in opposition to an India, which is belligerent and which may argue that culturally there was no such thing as Pakistan: "You are the same as me, your security relationships with China undermine my national security interests as India because of a two-and-a-half front war."

So it is also important for American interlocutors privately to make Pakistanis understand the point that standing up with the Ukrainians in this instance is actually in their own national security interest because tomorrow if a larger power—India—invades you using a similar logic, you will need to go back to the United Nations to seek protection; so you might as well stand up with the Ukrainian state so that somebody else might stand with you tomorrow.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That is a fascinating argument. I wish it was a stronger one. I am thinking about Zelenskyy in front of the United Nations, saying: "What are you here for? If you're not going to do anything, dissolve yourself."

I am wondering, what is the view of the United Nations from Pakistan?

UZAIR YOUNUS: From Pakistan the view has always been that Pakistan has been a contributor to the United Nations, it has worked through the UN system, it has demanded that the United Nations play its role in resolving the Kashmir conflict which has been going on for decades. That view has always been there, and the Pakistanis have been arguing for that.

Where they have shied away so far is that they are not willing to go out and condemn Russia in the same strong language that perhaps the United States or Europe would like them to do. The problem has been in a way that while the United States and Europe may accept that—as they have accepted it with a lot of Global South countries, particularly in South Asia—this overt reaching out to Putin while he was invading and all of that has complicated matters. I think Pakistan is trying to balance that out, both at the UN level and at the bilateral level, but it is finding it really difficult at this point in time because there is a political crisis domestically and foreign policy is at the center of that scandal.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Usually the United States media pays attention to Pakistan only in the context of problems. Particularly for many years in the U.S. mind Pakistan and Afghanistan were linked together. Since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year Afghanistan has largely dropped off the U.S. media coverage. We don't hear about it. We have moved on.

Obviously Pakistan can't move on in the same way, simply by reason of geography, but to what extent is the current situation in Afghanistan creating or feeding into the domestic crisis in Pakistan, and does it also feed into a sense that Pakistan has been abandoned once again by the United States, just as it did after 1989 and 1991, that the United States walks away from Afghanistan and essentially leaves Pakistan with the bills to pay? Is there a sense that that is feeding into some of this anti-Americanism or concern about the U.S. role?

UZAIR YOUNUS: Definitely that has played a role for decades, and it continues today. The Pakistani argument is that Afghanistan should not be forgotten, that the West and the international community ought to do more to help stem the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding there, and that Pakistan for decades has been generous. Even though it is a poor country, it has openly hosted millions of Afghan refugees, many of whom are now in their second or third generation being born in Pakistan. Where I live in my family home in Karachi, the back alley of my home has Afghan refugees living there at this point in time. I was just there this past September.

The Pakistanis have been generous, the government of Pakistan has been generous, but this creates domestic issues in the sense that there are resource constraints. Not only are there resource constraints, but the crisis in Afghanistan since last year has meant that there is higher demand for wheat, for example, in Afghanistan. That gets smuggled from Pakistan, which is already struggling with wheat shortages.

The stoppage of dollar flows into Afghanistan means that dollar demand in Pakistan's black markets goes up. For example, right after August of last year, while the Pakistani rupee was available for about 160–170 rupees a dollar in the Karachi open markets, in the black markets of Peshawar it was available for 180–185 rupees to the dollar because there was a need across the border for the currency. So it has an economic impact.

It becomes a challenge for a state that is already struggling domestically, and the Pakistani view always has been that the United States cannot abandon the Afghan people and Afghan refugees and must come to their aid and assistance; and if it doesn't, it creates not only issues for Pakistan but for the broader region. Iran is hosting millions of refugees. The –stans in Central Asia are hosting them. As Afghanistan continues to face this catastrophe, the more selfish interest for the West in particular is that ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is finding safe havens there and that is a collective threat for the region and for the world.

The only way to resolve this situation is for the West to remain engaged, for the United States to take leadership, and for humanitarian assistance to flow, not only because it's the right moral and ethical thing to do but also because it serves the strategic interests of the global community.

TATIANA SERAFIN: You mentioned the U.S. role. Is there a role for China, and what role is China playing, even looking at the domestic politics and what is going on?

UZAIR YOUNUS: The Chinese have been watching the unfolding crisis in Pakistan at this point in time. About 30 percent of Pakistan's total external debt is owed to China, so they have a financial interest in stability of the country as well.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is continuing to make progress. New investments have come in, although they have slowed down over the last couple of years for various reasons. The Chinese don't overtly influence the political developments in Pakistan and in other countries like Sri Lanka, for example, but they are concerned. They would like this situation to be resolved, and they would want stability to come back to Pakistan as soon as possible.

They have also increasingly become concerned about the uptick in terror attacks in Pakistan. Year on year, terror casualties for security forces are up about 40 percent in the Western regions of the country. That's where attacks have also taken place on Chinese engineers and workers working on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. So they have started talking about counterterror cooperation, concerns about security in Pakistan, in public statements as well.

The Chinese consistently have said that the relationship with Pakistan is ironclad, it is strategic, and that China will stand by Pakistan. My guess is that once this political crisis comes closer to resolution the Chinese will provide some immediate bilateral financial assistance to Pakistan; it is likely that the Saudis and the Emeratis may do something similar as well, but definitely the Chinese will step in to help stabilize the economy.

TATIANA SERAFIN: How has the Biden administration been? Here we are, dealing with a lot of issues. We are talking about anti-American sentiment, but really Americans are represented by Biden and I know that Khan had a good relationship with President Trump. What is the relationship with President Biden, and what can we do more of?

UZAIR YOUNUS: There is no relationship with President Biden, and ultimately, some people have argued, that is at the core of why Khan is insisting that there is a foreign plot as well. Pakistani interlocutors publicly and privately often raise the point that President Biden has never called Imran Khan even though he has called other world leaders. So the prime minister felt offense or did not like the fact that he has been rebuffed for so long.

Having said that, while there has not been head of state, senior-level engagement at that level, Secretary Blinken has engaged with his counterparts in Pakistan. Under Secretary Zeya was just in Pakistan at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting and had meetings with leadership of Pakistan on that trip. So senior-level engagement at the State Department diplomatic level has continued.

Pakistani representatives have also come to Washington and had meetings both on the security and diplomatic sides. So foundationally things are progressing, but there is this view in Washington that Pakistan played a double game in Afghanistan for so long and, therefore, it should not have that same level of access and friendliness in Washington that it used to have.

There are real issues that both sides need to resolve. Unfortunately, the problem now is that, because this "foreign plot" has been inserted into domestic politics, whoever comes next in Pakistan will find it very hard to reach out to the United States, not because the United States may be unwilling to engage, but primarily because any strategic engagement in the near term will be seen by the Khan government and its supporters as evidence of the plot itself, like, "Look, they changed the regime, and now they are opening their arms in terms of greeting them." So it will be a very tricky thing for both the security establishment in Pakistan as well as whoever succeeds Khan to navigate because any major headline in terms of friendliness will be seen as evidence of a conspiracy.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That's so fascinating because when we are looking at how domestic issues and foreign issues play out it's all about messaging.

We talked about these top-level connections; and you mentioned the diaspora, which has become such an important force in the Ukraine-Russia war. The Ukrainian diaspora is pretty much funding the war.

What have you seen in the diaspora reaction here? How are they communicating? Is there a lot of chatter on social media one way or the other in support of one leader, and how is the diaspora affecting internal domestic politics? I find this a fascinating issue because social media is linking diasporas from around the world in such different ways. I really want to talk about that aspect because I think it is an aspect that many people don't necessarily see as a geopolitical force, but I think it should be looked at.

UZAIR YOUNUS: The diaspora is the most important stakeholder in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. They are educated, integrated into American society, and take a lot of interest both in political developments here at home but also in Pakistan. They have played a key role over the last few years to build those bridges culturally, economically, diplomatically, and to engage with Pakistani interlocutors to say: "You know what? This is how perhaps you need to approach the relationship."

They have also invested in technology start-ups in Pakistan, which is a red-hot sector. There is a boom going on in entrepreneurship on the technology side. Much of that investment is being enabled through Pakistanis based here in the United States.

But politically when it comes to domestic politics in Pakistan the diaspora is split. I would say it is actually leaning towards Imran Khan. He has been very popular over the decades outside of Pakistan, among the diaspora, especially educated upper-middle-class and middle-class Pakistanis who have helped raise funds for his charitable hospital, which is where he started as a philanthropist after he retired as a cricketer. Then with his party in the early years, fundraising happened in the United States, Europe, United Kingdom, etc. They are really big believers in his message of change.

But what we are seeing now is this conflict within the diaspora because what they are seeing and what I am hearing from them is that what happened on Sunday is essentially what Donald Trump wanted Mike Pence to do on January 6. They are making that connection because they are saying: "The president lost. He wanted his vice-president to stop the vote. He did not do that. We think the Constitution reigns supreme in the United States, but in our homeland where we were born and where we have emigrated from, the prime minister was about to lose the vote and he stopped the count and ripped the Constitution to shreds."

That may not be the majority view in the diaspora, but that is clearly a conflict within the diaspora that says: "You know what? We benefit from living in a secular and constitutional democratic society. Perhaps the country of our birth should follow that example as well."

TATIANA SERAFIN: It will be interesting to see what happens. We are anxiously awaiting what the Supreme Court says, but I do think it is important to note the example that this sets for other leaders around the world because we are living in a time of many elections coming up around the world and leaders looking at what they can do or not do.

I want to leave off with the idea of what kind of example do you think this sets in the region. Is it an outlier, or can we expect this kind of strongman—maybe woman one day—armsmanship in taking power and saying, "No, I'm not letting go?"

UZAIR YOUNUS: There is an authoritarian leader who happens to be a woman in the region. Her name is Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh. The region has been turning towards right-wing authoritarianism for a number of years. Prime Minister Modi in India and his Bharatiya Janata Party is an example of that.

Pakistan is at an inflection point, in the sense that the history of its Supreme Court is pretty dodgy when it comes to standing for and upholding the Constitution. What a lot of people, including myself, have been arguing is that this is the moment for the Supreme Court to "dry clean" itself and wash away its past sins because if it stands with the Constitution today, it will set a precedent that says: "You know what? Pakistan is making that journey towards constitutional democracy, where norms and laws are upheld by the courts, and that strongmen cannot get away with doing things such as what Imran Khan did on Sunday."

We will see where this goes, but my firm belief is that if that happens Pakistan will be one of those countries that will indicate to the rest of the world that perhaps it is okay and possible to resist authoritarianism, even though it causes a lot of social domestic political instability, but that it is possible.

I think Pakistan was also a first mover in terms of the age of populism because Imran Khan has been a populist leader since 2013 at the very least in terms of his public persona, the protesting, calling out the system of elites, etc. Pakistan can also be the first mover now in terms of restoring the belief that constitutions matter, that the rule of law matters, that democracy matters, and that the will of the people as represented in Parliament, as flawed as that Parliament might be, ought to be upheld. So this is a big inflection point, not only for the country's Supreme Court but for the country itself and the world at large.

TATIANA SERAFIN: An excellent ending point. I couldn't have said it better. Thank you so much for joining us today.

UZAIR YOUNUS: Thank you for having me.

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