To paraphrase Camus, he who despairs of the condition of the Middle East is a coward, but he who has hope for it is a fool. In a permanent disaster zone, the best one can hope for is that things will not get worse—not too soon, anyway. Things did get better in the Middle East over the past four months—always unexpectedly, and on one occasion just when it looked like they could get dramatically worse.
The most important development was the acute phase of the Syrian crisis, which started with a nerve-gas attack on a Damascus suburb on August 21 and ended with the U.S. acceptance of the “Putin Plan” three weeks later. In the meantime, the world was treated to a dizzying sequence of confused statements and erratic decisions by the Obama administration.
A week after the attack on Ghouta the President declared he had decided “that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets” to punish Damascus for crossing his casually announced August 2012 “red line” on chemical weapons. The purported proof of Bashar al-Assad’s culpability—formally presented by the White House on August 30—was far from convincing, however. It was only marginally better than Bill Clinton’s excuse for attacking Serbia in 1999, or George W. Bush’s justification for attacking Iraq in 2003; but a mere decade after Colin Powell’s WMD show at the U.N. Security Council, the assurances that “multiple intelligence streams” had it right this time simply were not credible.
More seriously, the purpose of Obama’s intended assault was unclear. Would it be a short, sharp shock to please his ego, or would it be a sustained affair aimed at tipping the balance in the Syrian civil war? One day Kerry would herald an “unbelievably small” attack—an unbelievably bizarre turn of phrase under the circumstances—while the next Obama would declare that the U.S. military does not do pinpricks. The attacks would be hard enough to degrade Assad’s forces, but not so hard as to risk his stockpile of chemical weapons falling into rebel hands. This was not unsureness of touch; this was dilettantism. Top brass at the Pentagon were horrified.
On the last day of August, as it was becoming clear that there was no support at home for any strikes and that no “coalition” could be cobbled together abroad, Obama announced that he would seek congressional authorization for the attack. He was hoping to shift the burden of responsibility; but, to his horror, within 48 hours it had become clear that he could not get a majority in the Senate, let alone the House. He was faced with two bad options: to be defeated in Congress (like David Cameron had been in the House of Commons) and do nothing, or to be defeated on the Hill but go ahead with the strikes anyway. Then came an allegedly unscripted remark by Kerry on September 9 that Syria might avoid U.S. strikes by giving up her chemical stockpile. Russia seized on Kerry’s words and announced that she would urge Syria to accept the offer. The following day Obama accepted the Russian proposal. The crisis was over.
It remains unknown whether Kerry was really “thinking aloud,” as he claimed, or whether his remark was carefully inserted following some preliminary understanding with Moscow. Either way, the Russians threw a lifeline to Obama and made a grand reentry into the world arena as a self-confident and mature great power. If we compare and contrast Syria with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, it is remarkable how neatly the roles of Moscow and Washington were reversed in September. It was Obama who acted recklessly, Khrushchev-like, when he painted himself into the corner; and it was Putin who offered Obama an exit strategy, much as JFK offered the Soviets a face-saving formula 51 years ago.
The Russians understand what three successive American presidents have not grasped: that wars create more problems than they resolve. Putin and Lavrov have demonstrated what Dulles and Acheson knew, but their lesser successors do not: that diplomacy means reconciling apparently divergent interests and developing new areas of common interest, rather than imposing one’s will with the threat of force.
In the end President Obama’s blunders proved to be a multiple blessing for the nation.
With Putin’s intercession the world has become a notch more multipolar, which is a very good thing for the United States and for the world after the disastrous years of Clinton’s and Bush’s unipolarity.
Specifically in the Middle East, the United States will no longer bear the cross of responsibility on her own, now that Moscow is back on the regional scene for the first time since Gorbachev, which opens up some interesting possibilities in conflict management (Israel-Palestine) and diplomacy (Iran).
The U.S. Air Force will not be helping barbaric jihadists get closer to their goal of a Christian-free, sharia-based caliphate in Syria, and Bashar’s forces will be free to continue dealing with them by conventional means.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—different regimes in their own ways, but almost equally awful in their Islamist mendacity and malevolent intent—have been dealt a severe blow, just as they salivated at the prospect of the U.S. military making Syria safe for their pipeline projects, and—in Saudi Arabia’s case—helping them throw three-odd-million Alawite heretics into the sea.
Contrary to the arguments used by Netanyahu’s friends in Washington during their August campaign in favor of the air strikes, Israel is safer now. Denuded of chemical weapons, Syria will never be able to attack.
By not attacking Syria, the United States has made it possible for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to break away from his predecessor’s intransigence and suggest a constructive approach to the problem of his nation’s nuclear program. An exchange of letters between Obama and Rouhani does not necessarily herald a speedy resolution of the issue. It makes war less likely, however, than at any time since the conflict surfaced over a decade ago. This is excellent news, because attacking Iran would have proved more disastrous for American interests, and more costly in blood and treasure, than Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan put together.
Egypt was another unexpectedly bright spot in the Middle East last summer. The generals did what had to be done by removing the Muslim Brotherhood and its grotesque president from power, and by clamping down on their followers’ incipient armed resistance six weeks later. They did so very well mainly because they disregarded all advice from Washington. They knew that autocracy, under whatever name, is the only way their country can be run.
The terrorist character of Morsi’s movement became evident in the course of the government clampdown on his supporters last August, when dozens of Christian churches, institutions, and individuals all over Egypt were targeted by the Brotherhood. The attacks were instigated by the leaders and eagerly carried out by the rank and file. Of course, attacking the helpless infidel has always been at the heart of the Brotherhood’s Koranic inspiration, the record of the Brotherhood’s predecessors through history, and the practice of its contemporary peers. The assault on Egypt’s Christians outweighed the pragmatic need not to dissipate forces and not to lose foreign support—not that the West cared. Had a Christian mob put to torch 50-plus mosques and Islamic centers in Russia, that would have been the Western media’s lead story for days and weeks. But the persecution, violence, and bloodshed that is the daily lot of Christians in most majority-Muslim countries is underreported or else grotesquely misrepresented.
The attack by Egyptian security forces on the Muslim Brotherhood’s Rabia al-Adawiya encampment on August 14 was not merely an act of dispersing unruly demonstrators. In the six weeks before the attack the Brotherhood’s activists had gradually expanded its borders, turning the area into a veritable state within a state. It was an essential step in reasserting the authority of the only people capable of ensuring law and order in Egypt, the generals. They must have had a good laugh when Secretary of State John Kerry declared on July 31 that the Egyptian army was only “restoring democracy.” They know that there has never been any democracy in Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded groups elsewhere have a distinct vision, not only for their own countries but for the entire world. In dealing with Morsi and the Brothers, the generals had much more at stake than Western journalists and American politicians, and they knew exactly what needed to be done. In the end the Muslim Brotherhood went out with a short (albeit bloody) bang that now looks more like a whimper. A mere week after the clampdown of August 14 there were no more street battles, no burnings of Christian churches, no attacks on police stations. There was no civil war because the rebels failed to show up.
Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will be Egypt’s next president, and that also is a good thing. He will end the jihadist insurgency in Sinai, bring the Gaza crossings under control, and maintain peace with Israel. The Brothers and their ilk will go back where they belong, underground.
The U.S. intervention in Syria has been narrowly averted, there is less danger of a war with Iran than at any time since George W. Bush’s first inauguration, and Egypt is firmly in the hands of a military-controlled government. Each development is beneficial to the American interest by itself; their synergy may create the conditions, in the fullness of time, for America’s long-overdue disengagement from those faraway lands of which we know little.