An unfinished revolution in Egypt, civil war in Syria and Iran seeking WMD
Around the Right-Wing, Neo-Con world, the cry arises ‘why doesn’t somebody do something about the situation in Syria?’ By ‘somebody’, people have President Obama in mind even if they usually refer to America.
Start by taking a cool look at the latest events in Egypt. There was a leader-less revolution, a popular uprising against Mubarak. Once the protests started and the regime began to lose its grip on power, the previously banned Islamist parties stepped into the developing power vacuum. Due to their being organised, they won the election for the legislative body. Now however, as the reality of what they have voted for begins to sink in, the Egyptians have not voted en mass for an Islamist president. The people who started the revolution are still not politically organised, and are disappointed with the choices they have in the run-off presidential elections. In the meantime former president Mubarak has been sentenced to life imprisonment for causing the deaths of protestors, but the military commanders who carried out his orders have been acquitted. The Military of course are currently running the country so perhaps no surprises there. These verdicts have predictably brought protests from those who are staunchly anti-Mubarak and anti-military. There are fresh crowds in Tahir Square. It would be a mistake to think that they are all there because of the court verdicts. Some will be there because ‘their’ revolution has been hijacked, and gathering in Tahir Square is the only form of protest they can make. They are still not organised, nor do they have a defined leader, whereas the Islamists and the Military are organised and have leaders.
Presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq, the last Prime Minister under former President Mubarak and widely seen as ‘the army’s candidate’, has accused his Islamist rival, Mohammed Mursi, of wanting to create a sectarian state. Shafiq has accused Mursi of intimidating Coptic Christians and of wanting to repress women. Mursi has pooh-poohed this, saying that if elected he would resign from the Muslim Brotherhood and that there is no intention to force Egyptian women to take to the veil. Pull the other one Mohammed, that’s like saying the present Pope, who before he became Pope and was merely Cardinal Ratzinger the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the historicalInquisition, on becoming Pope resigned from the Inquisition and no longer supports anything that he was previously charged with upholding. I’m not quite sure how wanting to introduce Sharia Law squares with not expecting women to dress ‘modestly’, i.e. wear a veil in public and Mursi has not as yet explained. There will be some Egyptians who are thinking that this is not why they overthrew Mubarak. Some of these people will be in Tahiti Square but most will not. At least they won’t be until those calling for Mubarak’s retrial and wanting the death penalty have found something else to occupy them and left, then a new demonstration will most likely start.
In Egypt, America supported the idea of democracy but was castigated in some quarters for abandoning long-term ally Mubarak. Bugger democracy, the Neo-Cons wanted at all costs a non-Islamist government. Didn’t America realise, so the argument went, what would happen if Mubarak was overthrown? One wonders what these pundits think America was supposed to have done? By America of course, they mean Obama. By the Right’s reckoning, somehow or other America should have engineered a transfer of power from Mubarak to a representative government that would maintain the status quo vis a vis Israel, have popular support and keep the Muslim brotherhood in check. A great trick if you can pull it off, but pretty much impossible in reality. All America could do was to be seen to support democracy, hold their nose and deal with whatever government was elected, hoping to influence them after the dust had settled. The Right blames Obama for throwing an ally to the wolves and thus, amongst other things, showing America as an unreliable friend. This is a view shared by staunch democrats and now nervous friends such as Abdullah of Jordan, the House of Saud and probably most of the other Gulf rulers. Interesting bed-mates, assuming you think the Right is actually interested in democratic democracy.
What should Obama have done? To try to influence events on the ground was clearly a non-starter, so should America have done something behind the scenes? The problem with this train of thought is exactly who do you exert pressure on and to what end? Obama did put pressure on the Egyptian Military to ensure that elections took place, to abide by the results and hand over power once a president was elected and a constitution approved. What more should he have been done? Nothing, frankly. Anymore would have been seen as meddling in Egyptian internal politics, which would have been the kiss of death for any candidates that America supported.
Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to ‘speak quietly and carry a big stick’ is apt here. Once there is a functioning government in Egypt, that will be the time to try to influence events. Obama certainly has spoken quietly and in the form of financial aid, he has a big stick. The question is, will he use it if is in America’s interests that he do so? The Right of course say ‘no’. Their view of Obama is that he is anti-American, anti-Israel and pro Islam. How can an American president be anti-American? Simple, he doesn’t put his country’s interests first, according to his detractors. By that, they mean he doesn’t put what they view as America’s interests first.
Anti-Israel and pro Islam? The Right will point to the fact that Obama has encouraged the formation of an Islamist Government in Egypt, has not criticised the Turkish Government for it’s anti-Israel stance and it’s meddling in Syrian internal affairs, has encouraged the nascent Syrian opposition to include Islamist elements and has not acted fast enough over the Iranian attempts to acquire nuclear weapons. They will assert that Obama has pressured Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians whilst not applying pressure the other way. All American aid to Israel, in whatever form it takes, is merely a continuation of what was agreed by previous administrations and Obama has watered it down where he can. That he has been largely unsuccessful they say is due to Democrats’ support for Israel which even a Democrat President cannot ignore.
An unpopular but more charitable and in my view correct assessment of Obama is that he has tried a different approach to Middle East diplomacy, but that approach has been overtaken by events on the ground. The question now is does he realise this and will he be ideologically capable of changing direction, always assuming that he is re-elected.
You might recall that Syrian President Bashar Assad is quite happily massacring his own people, ignoring UN resolutions and clinging on to power long past the time when most pundits had assumed he would be found cowering in the sewer pipe of history. How can this be? Why has America, fresh from the successful installation of a democratic government in Libya, not bombed the living daylights out of Syrian Government Forces in support of the Opposition? Why did they not either force a resolution through the UN or ignore the UN and act earlier?
To answer that is actually quite simple. It’s a two- part answer, and in part one I’m going to examine some arguments put forward by politicians and journalists of a right-wing persuasion as examples of typical muddled thinking. These arguments have appeared in various op-ed pieces around the World, but without naming names, they regularly feature in the Jerusalem Post. Israel is right next door, so the situation in Syria is of particular immediate interest to them.
The argument goes that NATO/America/ UN/the West, take your pick, missed an opportunity months ago to take decisive military action against the Assad regime and thus establish some sort of democratic government that would in some way or other be beholden to whoever had helped them and might not be Islamist in nature. Think of the tens of thousands already killed and others who may yet be killed when a civil war breaks out. All this could have been avoided if America/NATO et al had only acted.
There are two immediate problems here. For many months, there was civil unrest but no organised opposition, no ‘leaders of the revolution’, a lot like the situation in Egypt, where their revolution is about to enter it’s second phase. So exactly who should America support in Syria, ‘the people’? What happens after they bomb Syrian Government Forces? What do ‘the people’ do then? Where does the idea that American intervention would have ensured a western-orientated or at least western-sympathetic government come from? What evidence is there to support this notion? None, in a word.
Perhaps I should define ‘the Right’, or at least what I mean by it. I don’t mean those who are ‘conservative’ in their politics. I do mean those who believe that the interests of America and her allies are best served by deploying troops to foreign lands and imposing a political system, social norms and vaguely Judeo-Christian concepts of justice, law and order on an unwilling population, largely unfamiliar with what is being imposed on them. It took the West five hundred years to establish what we today consider as democracy, it’s not something that you can simply graft onto a new vine and expect it to flourish in five minutes.
Does any of this mean you shouldn’t defend your own values and hard-won freedoms? No, of course not, quite the opposite in fact. Having respect for other peoples’ way of life and religious beliefs doesn’t mean rolling over and playing dead. Sometimes you’re going to have to fight for what you believe in. Sometimes you’re going to have to insist that migrants coming to your country have to accept your laws and your way of life or don’t come. But sometimes you’re going to have to accept that others’ have different concepts of justice and freedom. Now I happen to believe that in ‘The West’, and you could substitute ‘democracies’ if you’re more comfortable with that word, we’ve pretty much got it right and particularly totalitarian Islamic countries have got it wrong, but I believe in leading by example, not by hitting them over the head. At least, not as a first option. If you are genuinely threatened then you have to respond, but not necessarily by invasion.
In Libya NATO intervened but by and large restricted themselves to support from the air. The result was that the campaign to overthrow Gaddafi took longer than it might have done, but the fact that ‘foreign boots’ didn’t overtly touch Libyan soil doesn’t seem to have made much difference to the political landscape. The country is in a mess, and human rights abuses continued to take place after the fighting was over. What finally emerges is yet to be clear, but it shows no sign of being particularly fond of the West or being more democratic than tribal in nature. At least, for the moment, Libya remains one country, despite an attempt at regionalisation. Not perhaps a stunning success, but as yet not a failure. The cynical would say give it time and it will be. I would say think of the five hundred year flowering of democracy in Europe, then dramatically shorten that timescale because of instant communications, mass media and social media. Don’t over-estimate the impact of facebook and twitter, but equally don’t dismiss them out of hand as the playthings of a bored, decaying Western culture.
America and her allies went crashing into Iraq and failed to impose a government particularly grateful or well disposed towards the West. In fact, it’ll be something of a miracle if the country holds together as a single entity, and there’s one clue as to why nothing has been done in Syria. Iraq really can’t be portrayed as an example of successful military intervention and America, in the quiet of the night, realises it. If you are going to send in the troops, you have to buy into the concept of nation building, with all that entails in terms of economic burden and time. A strong case can be made for nation building in some circumstances, but there is no ‘half-way house’. It’s all or nothing.
The evidence seems to point to the fact that American/NATO intervention may staunch short-term bloodshed but doesn’t result in a government that is well-disposed towards the West, or at least anti-Islamist, Islamists being the big bogey-men of the Right just at the moment.
So why hasn’t America intervened in Syria? Has the ‘penny dropped’ that the only way to intervene is by nation building? Probably not, but there are other reasons why nothing has happened. In the second part, we’ll take a look at some of those reasons.