Discussions about coup vs. revolution, democracy vs. military rule, and regime change vs. insurgency dominate the discourse about Egypt and Syria in the media, but the tendency to explain developments using easily understandable bumper sticker style labels that are derived from western political science models obscures the reality of what is taking place. Prior to the developments of the past few days, President Barack Obama, who was under intense pressure to "do something" by the usual suspects in congress and the media, had apparently finally figured out that there is nothing that he actually can do that would bring any positive result, quite the contrary. But then the warships started to move, suggesting that a Clintonesque moment was about to be reprised, with cruise missiles streaking into Syria to pulverize sand dunes and mud huts. Secretary of State John Kerry has described the allegedly "indisputable" use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government based on information that apparently was provided by Israel. He also described the incident as a "moral obscenity" and a “cowardly crime,” apparently a bit of poetic license on the part of the Secretary, who finds extralegal assassinations by drone to be both ethically praiseworthy and courageous. But his comments surely indicate that military action is about to be initiated.
One might have thought that Obama, with his vast intelligence resources, could have learned that years of supporting a series of local autocrats as well as Israel’s occupation of Palestine combined with failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has meant that the United States has zero credibility anywhere in the Middle East and virtually no leverage over developments, a reality that will not be changed by launching cruise missiles or bombing airfields. The real tragedy is that there is a more cautious side of Obama that seemingly always gets derailed when the opportunity to use all that shiny military hardware presents itself. Obama, to his credit, had recently allowed General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to speak out clearly and emphatically about Syria, observing that there are no good options.
To be sure, Mohamed Morsi was no Thomas Jefferson and his ascent to the Egyptian presidency was enabled through fraud and double dealing culminating in a dubious parliamentary election that appeared to confirm the ascendancy of his party. Nor is Bashar al-Assad a role model for responsible and accountable government even if the recent chemical attacks attributed to him to provide a casus belli turn out to be either a fabrication or a deliberate provocation by the rebels, as I suspect will be the case. But the very idea that somehow imposed-by-force western style democracy is a solution to what ails everyone everywhere has failed to convince, particularly as the countries involved in the process, be they in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, have their own painfully evolved political cultures that are complex amalgams of religion, history, and social dynamics. Most voters in the new democracies were undoubtedly engaging in a process with which they had little actual connection or understanding and after the cruise missiles begin to fly the Syrians will not care about elections, seeing only a line of body bags labeled "Made in USA."
And then there is the play of local and regional politics which minimizes the ability of the great powers to influence developments and underlines the folly of the entire enterprise The Saudis and some of the Gulf States have their own interests, which include slowing any development of democracy in the Arab world lest it come home to roost, and have been providing substantial funding for the Egyptian opposition almost since Morsi was elected while Washington, aware of what was going on, chose to look the other way. Now Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have together promised $12 billion to help insure the survival of the struggling military regime while Kuwait is providing oil. The Saudis have also told the Egyptians that they will make up for any shortfall if the Europeans or Washington do decide to cut aid, making the regime largely immune to outside pressure from the west.
Syria’s government also benefits from politics outside its borders, with Russia and China providing a veto on any precipitate action by the United Nations, NATO reluctant to engage in yet another U.S./U.K. sponsored war, and Iran contributing limited logistical and intelligence assistance to Damascus, making cruise missile pin pricks from the western powers and the U.S. largely irrelevant except to the collateral deaths that will inevitably be caused. Jihadi groups have also entered the fray on the rebel side, seeking to turn the conflict into the latest phase in their campaign to bring down corrupt regimes throughout the Muslim ummah, sometimes suggesting that al-Assad might well be the most moderate player on the field.
No one expected fighting in Syria to continue as long as it has and with such devastating effect on the country’s people, a major miscalculation when Turkey and some European governments encouraged the so-called rebels over two years ago. In Egypt, though some no doubt found comfort in the Muslim Brotherhood’s motto which concludes with the phrase "death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations," few expected much from the nation’s first genuine election and almost no major foreign players actually wanted the Brotherhood to form a government and attempt to rule. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in particular, who have been lobbying the White House intensely, were reluctant to endorse any form of populism. Washington also longed for its predictable relationship with President Hosni Mubarak even as Hillary Clinton reversed herself to drift into endorsement of the end of his dictatorial rule. Nearly everyone who had any kind of stake in the outcome preferred a formula that would insure stability and a reining in of the radicals on both sides.
It is now widely accepted within Washington’s foreign policy establishment that the attempt to introduce democratic norms in places lacking democratic traditions has essentially failed, leaving Susan Rice and Samantha Powers as the sole holdouts supporting from the sidelines a much less ambitious program of humanitarian interventionism and nation building. The president’s new found inclination to take action appears to be based only on fulfilling his promise to do something if the hypothetical red line on weapons of mass destruction were to be crossed, a very bad reason to enter into a civil war. Obama might also be wanting to do something to mitigate the impression that he has fostered a foreign policy that has failed or is failing on every front, a bit of face saving that has little or nothing to do with any belief that regime change in Damascus is either desirable or attainable.
A White House attempt to craft a new foreign policy doctrine that conforms with current realities and is based on vital American interests in the region is long overdue. The only critical interest is continued access to energy resources, but domestic political realities in Washington have also made the protection of the State of Israel a top priority. Israel, for its part, would prefer the stability provided by military junta as opposed to a Mohamed Morsi as well as a fragmented Syria, and has made its views known to Washington, even though its persistence in advocating the removal of Bashar al-Assad, while weakening Iran regionally, might also inevitably introduce a new potential threat in the form of a radicalized government in Damascus. As is usually the case, Washington is taking pains to satisfy all of Israel’s "security concerns," even when they are nonsensical, contradictory and damaging to actual American interests.
The internal White House debate over the perils of democratization has resulted in a slow-down of promised U.S. military assistance to the Syrian rebels while, ironically, letting the weapons to continue to flow to Cairo. This is partly due concerns over the increased radicalization of the insurgency and an understandable desire to avoid taking steps that will only push Egypt closer to civil war. Regarding Egypt, some are advocating as a model Turkey’s now discarded 1985 constitution which created Ankara’s own National Security Council, empowering the generals that composed it to veto the measures undertaken by the civilian government if the council determined that they were damaging to the secular constitution. That would mean, in effect, that elections can be held while the military becomes a permanent advisory partner in government though without playing any overt role or having to run the bureaucracy. It would also require the army to step down once civilian rule is firmly established, by no means a given.
The problem with all the scenario playing in Washington is, of course, that it is just a way of analyzing a problem without any connection to the real world. It includes no metric to measure success and the results over the past twelve years have been dismal, resulting in U.S. decline and impacting negatively on the well-being of every American citizen. Constructing possible scenarios for the Middle East will not mean an end to American military intervention worldwide, as the events of the past week have demonstrated, and it will not stop the insidious domestic policies being carried out by the Obama administration, which has been described as the most secretive and constitutionally damaging in American history. But Obama’s evident reluctance to fully engage the U.S. military after the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan and his embrace of half measures could mean an abandonment of attempts to use American boots-on-the-ground to change governments overseas, replaced by a much more cautious path towards something akin to accountable government based on incremental change engineered by shadowy and secretive quasi Non-Government Organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy. Toppling foreign governments directly will be replaced by coercing and suborning them. However, it might not work any better than the old way of doing things as it assumes that outside players can really influence developments in a place like Egypt or control the fractious politics of countries like Syria, which are almost certainly false assumptions that play out well in National Security Council tabletop war games but not so well in real life.