Observations of a Bystander

Writing about foreign policy these days is an exercise in frustration, because the United States is in the unusual and unnecessary position of being a bystander to world events.

The reason is that President Obama is deeply committed to a policy of inaction, or more accurately, action so halting and reluctant as to be nearly indistinguishable from inaction. It is as if he has taken Hamlet as his role model—with results that look much like the last act of Shakespeare’s play.

In the primary crisis of the moment, the civil war in Syria, President Obama has bungled the American reaction about as much as possible. The rebellion was not initially spearheaded by Islamists and still has many secular supporters—yet Obama’s delay in offering any kind of substantive support for the rebels gave time for the Islamists to be attracted to the conflict and take a leading role. In the process, our extended neutrality has made us look like a weak adversary and a feckless ally and has caused many supporters of the rebellion to conclude that America prefers dictators. (It is a conclusion that is also popular these days among Egypt’s secular liberals. See this moving open letter to Obama published in an Egyptian newspaper.) To the extent that we have done anything, we have largely outsourced support for the rebellion to local proxies—Turkey, Qatar, and the Saudis—who have their own agendas, which is one reason the Islamists have risen to prominence. Letting the war fester for two years has destabilized as many neighbors as possible, including Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. In the meantime, we have let a whole lot of people get killed in order to achieve no definitive result. And now that we have declared that the Assad regime has crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons, President Obama has created the expectation that we will send increased military aid to the rebels—but no one seems to have any clear idea what we will do and what we are trying to achieve.

Basically, we have accomplished all of the same negative results as the war in Iraq—sectarianism and massive bloodshed—without any of the positive results, and while making America seem either weak or pro-dictatorship. It’s a helluva job when you think about it.

As to what we should do in Syria, we ought to have backed the rebels decisively early on. Bashar Assad is one of the chief allies of the Iranian terrorist theocracy and was a major sponsor of the insurgency in Iraq, so he has a lot of American blood on his hands. If we can’t take down a scumbag like that, who can we take down? And we needed to act early, because it was predictable (and predicted at the time, by me and others) that the longer we waited, the more likely it was for the rebellion to become sectarian and attract Islamists.

Even now, there is still a strong secular component to the rebellion. The situation is nicely summed up in a little incident recently observed by a Reuters journalist in a rebel-controlled city.

“The Syrian boys looked edgy and awkward. Three months ago their town, the eastern desert city of Raqqa, had fallen to rebel fighters trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Now the four boys—clad in tight jeans and bright T-shirts—were whitewashing a wall to prepare it for revolutionary graffiti.

“‘We’ll make this painting about the role of children in the revolution,’ one of the boys told two journalists.

“A white Mitsubishi pulled up and a man in camouflage trousers and a black balaclava jumped out and demanded that the journalists identify themselves. He was from the Islamic State of Iraq, he said, the Iraqi wing of al Qaeda linked to an Islamist group fighting in Syria called Jabhat al-Nusra.

“The boys kept quiet until the man pulled away, and then started talking about how life has changed in the city of around 250,000 people since the Islamists planted their flag at the former governor’s nearby offices.

“‘They want an Islamic state, but most of us want a civilian state,’ the boy said. ‘We’re afraid they’re going to try to rule by force.’

“As he finished his sentence, the same white car roared back round the corner. This time two men, both in balaclavas and holding Kalashnikov assault rifles, stepped out.

“‘Painting is forbidden here,’ one fighter said. The graffiti was too close to the group’s headquarters. One of the boys made a brief, almost inaudible protest. ‘We’re sorry,’ the fighter said. ‘But painting is forbidden.’ His comrade stroked his long beard and said: ‘We are not terrorists. Don’t be afraid of us. Bashar is the terrorist.’

“The encounter captures an important shift underway in rebel-held Syria. Using a mix of intimidation and organization, alliances of Islamist brigades are filling the vacuum in areas where Assad’s army has withdrawn and more secular rebels have failed to provide order.”

Read the whole piece. It’s a good overview and shows how the Islamists are accepted because they show relative restraint, allowing secular life in rebel territory to continue largely as before. But the tension remains, and it’s clear they will push for religious dictatorship after the Assad regime is defeated. Apparently, this is the lesson they learned from Iraq, where al-Qaeda’s attempt to rule by force so alienated the locals that it drove them into an alliance with the US. This time they are being more patient and biding their time.

All of this indicates to me that the fighting we’re seeing right now, the battle between the Assad regime and the rebels, is only phase one of the Syrian Civil War. Phase two—or perhaps phase three, if there is an intervening period of sectarian blood-letting, as seems likely—will be a power struggle between a largely secular population and largely foreign Islamists. In my view, we should be trying to move the battle on to this final phase as quickly as possible, and we should be doing everything in our power to increase the strength, organization, and influence of the secular element of the revolution.

But like I said, all we can expect from the current administration is more of the Hamlet act. As for backing the secular faction in Syria over the Islamists, we can also look at the administration’s total failure to do this in Iraq, in Egypt, in Libya, in Tunisia, and for that matter in Iran. So we can conclude that there is not much chance they will do it here.

That doesn’t change what the US ought to do, but it means we should resign ourselves to the fact that this president is vanishingly unlikely to do it. There is not much use in offering advice about what the United States can do or should do to advance its interests, because for the next few years, no one is even interested in taking that advice. We have been reduced to bystanders, and all we can do is observe the great power struggle going on right now in the Middle East and speculate on how it will turn out. But we are not disinterested bystanders. America may have turned inward for the past five years, but ignoring events in the Middle East doesn’t mean that we escape the consequences. We may not be interested in war, but war is interested in us.

So here are the observations of a bystander on the vast civil war unfolding in the Middle East.

In Syria (and in Lebanon, where it is spilling over), this civil war is mostly sectarian, pitting the two great Muslim sects, Sunnis and Shiites, against one another.

The only good thing about this is that we get to see Hezbollah fight against al-Qaeda. I’ll break out the popcorn for that. As Henry Kissinger said about the Iran-Iraq War, it’s a pity they can’t both lose. Except that he was wrong. They could and did both lose. But then again, we can lose from this battle, too. War often produces outcomes that are bad for everyone. Bret Stephens makes a compelling case that this is what happened in the Iran-Iraq War, and that it’s happening in Syria right now.

Sectarian conflict is also the main story in Iraq, where the Obama administration’s mania for total withdrawal—both military and diplomatic—caused us to sit idly while Shiite Islamist Nouri al-Maliki overturned the results of a 2009 election that should have brought a non-sectarian party into power. That election victory should have cemented the rapprochement the US had forged between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. Instead, Maliki has spent the past four years blowing everything apart again by abusing his power to take revenge on sectarian enemies.

Last year, the Washington Post offered a good overview of how the administration has done its best to squander everything the US achieved in Iraq.

“Since US troops withdrew in December, Maliki has extended his reach to take on his political rivals, drawing accusations from Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities that he is intent on establishing a dictatorship. An arrest warrant issued just days after the U.S. pullout for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi—the top Sunni official in Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government—has been followed more recently by challenges to the autonomy enjoyed by the Kurdish region in the north, provoking threats by Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani to sever ties with Baghdad.

“Sunnis and Kurds, angered by what they see as Maliki’s efforts to exclude them from power, accuse the United States of doing little or nothing to restrain his excesses or to press him to implement agreements under which he pledged to share power….

“‘Maliki is heading towards an incredibly destructive dictatorship, and it looks to me as though the Obama administration is waving him across the finishing line,’ said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the London School of Economics. ‘Meanwhile, the most likely outcomes, which are either dictatorship or civil war, would be catastrophic because Iraq sits between Iran and Syria.'”

This indicates that it is not the US invasion of Iraq, nor is it the Arab Spring as such that has empowered sectarian Islamists in the region. Rather, it is the total lack of any follow-up by the Obama administration.

You can see this pattern in Afghanistan, where the administration is planning a withdrawal of US troops next year but seems to have no plan for what will happen after they leave. The editorial board of the Washington Post complains:

“At a ministerial meeting in Brussels last week, the alliance made only incremental progress toward committing itself to a plan to support the Afghan army beginning in 2015…. But there was no agreement on troop numbers — largely because the Obama administration has yet to determine the size of the US force….

“The vagueness is in part the product of tricky negotiations with the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai, who at times has publicly disparaged a future U.S. troop presence. Then, too, there has been a debate inside the administration about how large a force will be needed; one White House aide suggested early this year that a zero option was possible….

“A new report by former Afghanistan commander Gen. John R. Allen, former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy and defense analyst Michael O’Hanlon argues that a specific US commitment to a follow-on force now would…tell the Taliban and Pakistan that Afghanistan will not be theirs for the taking after 2014, and it would open the way for NATO members and other US allies to firm up their numbers.”

Obama and his friends on the left used to talk about how they thought diplomacy was better than war, but a lot of our current problems come from their neglect of diplomacy. Which indicates that the goal all along was simply to reduce American influence altogether. To reverse the old saying, when you plan to fail, you fail to plan.

This is how the administration habitually deals with the follow-up to American military action in the Middle East. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl describes how the same planning-to-fail policy is the root of the debacle in Libya.

“[U]ltimately the disaster in Libya derived from Obama’s doctrine. Having been reluctantly dragged by France and Britain into intervening in Libya’s revolution, Obama withdrew US planes from the fight as quickly as possible; when the war ended, the White House insisted that no US forces stay behind. Requests by Libya’s fragile transitional government for NATO’s security assistance were answered with an ill-conceived and ultimately failed program to train a few people in Jordan.

“A new report by the Rand Corporation concludes that ‘this lighter-footprint approach has made Libya a test case for a new post-Iraq and Afghanistan model of nation-building.’ But the result is that, a year after the death of dictator Moammar Gaddafi, Libya is policed by what amounts to a mess of militias.”

It’s not well remembered these days—nothing about the war in Iraq is—but a “light footprint” was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s original approach to the occupation of Iraq, and that’s what allowed the insurgency to take root in 2003-2004. Now the Obama administration is trying its own “light footprint” strategy in Libya, in Iraq, and soon in Afghanistan.

It is ironic that the growing consensus on the left and right is that all of this demonstrates the folly of US intervention in the region—when the real story is the cost of US passivity and withdrawal.

Fortunately, however, not everything in the region depends on us and on our intervention, and the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites is not the only civil war going on in the greater Middle East. The other conflict is between secular liberals and Islamists.

In Egypt, this has broken open recently with a protest at the Cairo Opera.

“As the curtains swept open on the stage of Cairo’s historic Opera House in late May, spectators held their breath waiting to be regaled by Giuseppe Verdi’s classic Aida, which opens with the Egyptians bracing for invasion by Ethiopians seeking to rescue their princess, Aida, from a lifetime of servitude. What they got, however, may have left Verdi himself on the edge of his seat.

“Instead, the cast and crew stood shoulder to shoulder, some in costume, many with placards in hand, denouncing what they called the ‘Brotherhoodization of the Opera’ and declaring the country’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government ‘illegitimate.’ As the crowd shot to its feet cheering ‘Bravo!’ and chanting ‘Long Live Egypt,’ conductor Nayer Nagui announced:

“‘In a stand against a detailed plan to destroy culture and fine arts in Egypt, we decided as artists and management to abstain from performing tonight’s Opera Aida.’

“It was, for artists and art-lovers alike, a declaration of war.”

Well, it’s about time. The one positive trend emerging from the Arab Spring, as I hoped it would, is that the region’s educated middle class is beginning to discover that the War on Terrorism wasn’t just the West’s invented conflict with Islam. They are beginning to realize that they have to fight the Islamists, too.

Secularists have issued a similar declaration of cultural and political war in Turkey, where an attempt to pave over a park in downtown Istanbul turned into a rallying point for secular opposition to President Erdogan’s authoritarian Islamism.

Claire Berlinski describes the grievances that motivate the protests.

“Of late, almost every sector of the electorate has felt unease about one part or another of Erdoğan’s agenda. Restrictive new alcohol legislation, rammed through parliament, as usual, with contempt for the minority opposition, has prompted outrage; the so-called peace process with the PKK, which no one understands, has caused great unease. Anxiety is growing as well, not only about press censorship, but also about the prosecution of those who insult government officials or ‘Islamic values’ on social media…. [A]nd there is deep skepticism about Erdoğan’s plans for grandiose construction projects—such as a third airport, a second Bosphorus canal, and a gigantesque mega-mosque intended to exceed in size every mosque left behind by his Ottoman predecessors. The thing will dominate Istanbul’s already-martyred skyline, and replace yet another pleasant and leafy park….

“Two weeks ago in Ankara, a disembodied voice on the subway, having apparently espied them by means of a security camera, denounced a couple for kissing. The voice demanded that they ‘act in accordance with moral rules.’ In return, incensed Ankara lovers staged kissing protests: as the couples shyly smooched outside the subway station, a group of young men confronted them, chanting ‘Allahu Akbar!’ It was reported but not confirmed that one of the kissers was stabbed; but given the mood of hysteria here right now, it would be unwise to believe every rumor one hears….

“So no, the unrest roiling Turkey is not about Gezi Park…. The protests are about authoritarianism, plain and simple.”

The implications for the region are very important. Turkey had been held up as a model of “Islamic Democracy”: the coexistence of “moderate” Islamism with civil liberties and representative government. The current protests, as one observer concludes, “signal the final demise of an Islamic discourse of civic pluralism and the failure of Turkey’s Islamic politics to protect the integrity of democratic citizenship rights.”

Ralph Peters blames Erdogan’s authoritarianism on a conflict between “democracy” and liberty, and there is a lot to this idea. But it is important to keep in mind that the protests against Erdogan are themselves a product of the establishment of representative government and civilian rule in Turkey. A generation ago, a politician like Erdogan would simply have been deposed in a military coup. Today, those who want to reverse Turkey’s slide into Islamist dictatorship realize that they will have to band together and rely on their own political activism to preserve their freedoms.

Similarly, Larbi Sadiki, a Tunisian liberal based in the West, argues that Libya needs representative government first, as the precondition for deeper reform.

“Every time a bomb goes off in Libya, it restarts an old debate: which should come first, security or democracy?

“The answer must be that democracy precedes all other imperatives.

“Before the Arab revolutions, the Arab world put security first, with results we know. So it makes no sense to revert to the security-first approach now….

“Real security demands trust among citizens, and between them and the state. Democratization can create security, not the other way around.”

As the initial wave of the Arab Spring broke, I observed that the movement did not constitute the triumph of liberty but rather the death of secular Arab dictatorship, the movement started by Egypt’s Nasser and continued by Hafez Assad in Syria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Moammar Gaddafi in Libya, and Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia. Of these regimes, only Assad’s remains, for the moment. I predicted that a long battle would follow to determine what would replace this old system. The main requirement for that battle is that the best people in Arab and Muslim societies, the secular liberals, realize that they hold the fate of their societies in their own hands and take up the struggle to defeat the Islamists.

I also called on America to make it our highest priority to support and encourage these people. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen. But they can succeed without our help.

If you want to see how the battle is shaping up, look at Tunisia. This was where the Arab Spring began, and it has been considered the most promising prospect because of its large number of educated, relatively secular young people. But the assassination of a secularist political leader has turned the country into a battleground between secularists and salafists (a term for Taliban-style radical Islamists). Does this mean that Tunisia is not really the model for a positive outcome to the Arab Spring? Quite the opposite. Tunisia is being attacked by the salafists precisely because it is a model. One reporter quotes a Tunisian university professor who has become a central figure in the struggle with the salafists.

“Tunisia is the only country in the Muslim world where women have the same rights as men to ask for a divorce. We don’t practice polygamy. Tunisia is a special case. It is a counter model, which is why they want to get rid of it. Without Tunisia, they can say that certain customs are practiced only in the West. They are embarrassed that we, as Muslims, have the same equality between men and women as one finds in the land of the ‘nonbelievers.'”

This point can be taken more broadly. If Tunisia’s Arab Spring produces a successful secular society, that will provide a model to be followed elsewhere. And it is not the only model.

Our president—enabled, I am sad to say, but a bipartisan withdrawal from the world—has shoved us onto the sidelines in this conflict, but that does not mean we are powerless to affect it. We still have what has always been our most important asset: the power of our example.

A recent commentary in favor of free-trade agreements made in passing an observation with much wider application.

“In the past great theorists like Machiavelli and later Hobbes never understood that the balance of power could be transformed internationally. They did not realize that the world was not condemned to endless balance of power rivalries. Every now and then ‘powers of attraction’ would create a stunning overbalance of force in which joining parties would emerge satisfied. In Europe it did so for a half century after 1815. The Cold War came to an end because the United States had created an overbalance of power that made Soviet resistance counterproductive and ultimately attracted Moscow to begin (the still unfinished) process of political and economic reform.

“Today, the United States stands athwart Asian and European worlds. It offers trade and investment to both continents. The attractive force of America’s open invitation to join a greater economic unit can change the game of world politics. If TAFTA and an investment agreement are negotiated, the US and the EU would then represent an economic unit of $32 trillion, about half of world GDP (of $61 trillion). If TPP emerges, it would combine an additional $2.3 trillion; if Japan, Canada and Mexico join, as seems likely, another $7.9 would be inputted into the growing commercial enterprise, rendering a total of over $40 trillion.”

This is a very important idea: that the old “realist” zero-sum game of a “balance of powers” is superseded by “powers of attraction.” Economics is an important power of attraction, but culture and ideology are even more powerful.

For many decades, our natural allies, the secular liberals in the Middle East, were sidelined by a local politics that had only two poles: the secular dictators and the Islamists. Now politics in the Middle East, from Tunisia to Libya to Egypt to Turkey and soon to Syria and beyond, is being defined in proper terms: as a battle between Islamists and secular or “civilian” society. Now, those inspired by a “power of attraction” to the ideals of a free society are in the field, taking up the burden and the privilege of fighting for these ideals.

We may be reduced to being bystanders, but for the first time they are not.

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4 Responses to Observations of a Bystander

  1. Peter Trnkoczy June 23, 2013 at 7:04 AM #

    All of Islam has never gone through a Renaissance, never mind the Enlightenment and the Industrial revolution. To me they are all savages, and, we should stop talking about them as if they were part of western civilization or any civilization. They are the dregs of an Arab culture, now long dead, similar to today’s Greek compared to the Ancient Greek. And what is it we could introduce them to, a Democracy like ours? Our Democracy will quite possibly take us back to the cave unless we abolish it and establish a country of law and not of men.
    I say ignore Islam, keep them out of our broken ‘culture’, don’t let them immigrate to our shores; let them discover ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and all that which makes a high civilization possible. Our own civilization is on its way out unless we reverse course. Let the Islamic tribes fight it out among themselves; let’s bring our own house in order.

    • Robert Tracinski June 23, 2013 at 10:13 AM #

      This is a good example of the neo-isolationism that has recently taken hold on the right. I would just point out that the Middle East doesn’t need a Renaissance or Enlightenment. They’ve got ours. Tell the Cairo sophisticates watching a Verdi opera, for crying out loud, that they are “all savages.” You can argue for a grim realpolitik approach to foreign policy, but don’t pretend that there aren’t good people who will be the victims.

  2. Marvin Jay Greenberg June 23, 2013 at 9:03 AM #

    President Obama is quietly carrying out Ron Paul’s foreign policy in the middle east, except that Obama is supportive of Israel, while Paul is not.

    Please spell out what would be your policy in the region if you were president.

    • Robert Tracinski June 23, 2013 at 10:32 AM #

      Well, see the previous article of mine that I just linked to above, which I just posted at http://www.tracinskiletter.com/2011/09/the-post-911-era/ . I would make sure we were doing everything we could–which is at least a hundred times what we’re doing now–to support the more liberal forces in the Middle East and to oppose the “democratic” Islamists. That would mean, among other things, that Iyad Allawi would be president in Iraq, backed by a secular Sunni-Shiite alliance. Chris Stevens wouldn’t have been pretty much the only guy we had in Libya, and he would have had adequate security, so he would still be alive. Assad would have been gone two years ago, before Jabat al-Nusra showed up. And we would have very firmly discouraged the Muslim Brotherhood’s power grab in Egypt, instead of just shrugging our shoulders and saying, “Hey, whatever.” Look, the point is that I would have defined what our interests are in the region and done something to achieve those objectives. I don’t think there’s anyone out there who would describe Obama’s policy in those terms.