NANTUCKET—While this island’s most famous summer resident –Secretary of State John Kerry- tirelessly pursues a matter of comparative irrelevance- Israeli-Palestinian peace talks- the entire Middle East is turning into a blazing conflagration the likes of which we have not seen since the end of the Second World War.
The current epicenter of this metastasizing chaos is Egypt which now trembles on the brink of an all-out Civil War the genesis of which owes a great deal to the utter confusion and ineptitude of U.S. foreign policy.
While the present Administration’s bizarre policy mix of apologies and “leading from behind” has emboldened enemies, discouraged friends, and thus accelerated the current crisis the roots of American failure throughout this volatile region pre-date Obama and are very bipartisan in nature.
Since the demise during World War I of the Turkish Ottoman Empire which had ruled the region for six hundred years the Middle East has been a playground of Great Power rivalries. Until the Suez Crisis of 1956 Britain and France were the major players. Thereafter the area was a recurring flashpoint in the Cold War contest between the U.S, and the Soviet Union usually revolving around the long running Arab- Israeli conflict.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union the U.S. stood alone as the major external influence in the Middle East. Our unrivaled military and economic might compelled respect if not affection throughout the region. This pre-eminence however also brought renewed energy to a long existing strand of American idealism: the idea that our country should transcend its’ tradition of being a distant “beacon” and role model for democracy and instead use our enhanced global power to become an active “exporter” of democracy.
Post-Cold War the most graphic example of this impulse was the “Freedom agenda” of George W. Bush. Though officially disdaining any inclination to “nation building” in both Iraq and Afghanistan we followed lightning military victories by plunging into precisely that task and the even more problematic challenge of “democracy building”. We deluded ourselves into believing that the natives were coming together in New England style Town Meetings, holding elections and shortly we would see the emergence of Washingtons and Jeffersons galore. Hyped by a fickle media we cheered loudly at the sight of happy Muslims waving purple fingers in the air. Surely, in good Hollywood fashion the final scene would be our victorious troops coming home awash in the applause of those grateful peoples who they liberated and enfranchised.
Instead we found ourselves sucked into the vortex of a decade of horrific sectarian violence, and exploding IEDs distributed by God-Fearing Terrorists who not only hated us, but were determined to attack us anywhere and anytime they got the chance.
Myths die hard however, and with the arrival of the vaunted “Arab Spring” we felt that the triumph of real democracy was at hand.
Wrong again! Elections yes, Democracy no. From Hamas in Gaza, to the interchangeable Ayatollahs in Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the wrong people were winning these elections the U.S. so long espoused.
U.S. policy errors are greatly compounded when we embed our fondness for elections in law. When France acted decisively to prevent Al-Qaeda from toppling the government of Mali, we hesitated to offer even logistical support because we had a law that precluded any support for governments that had come to power by way of a Coup. That folly is now writ large in Egypt as U.S. politicians of both parties argue A. whether the ouster of Mohammed Morsi was or was not a Coup and B. if it was must we or must we not suspend all military aid to Cairo.
Given our long history of encouraging Coups against governments we didn’t like (Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954, South Vietnam 1963, Chile 1973, and Libya 2012 to name just a few) this “holier than thou” attitude toward Coups is understandably viewed by most of the world as the rankest hypocrisy not to mention a total flight from reality.
Thus while the U.S, fiddles, Egypt burns. Not surprisingly we have earned the scorn and anger of all Egyptian factions for indecisiveness, meddling or both.
While principal responsibility for the shambles that is our Egyptian policy must rest with the Obama Administration the bipartisan character of U.S. dysfunction is well illustrated by those travelling Republican gadflies Senators McCain and Graham who had the audacity to hold a press conference (August 6) in Cairo of all places to call for a campaign of international pressure on behalf of releasing Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders.
Forgotten in the midst of all this confusion is the reason why we started giving military aid to Egypt in the first place and why we supported Hosni Mubarak for thirty years. We did these things because Egypt- the largest Arab country- made peace with Israel thereby anchoring a relative stability in the region for three decades.
What all of this should teach us is that using democracy as a litmus test for our dealings with other nations is pure folly. The fact is that democracy as we know it is practiced in relatively few places and none of them are in the Middle East save besieged Israel.
In the Middle East the valued coin of the realm is power and the willingness to use it. Strength is respected and weakness is held in contempt.
Today as the countries of the Middle East descend into varying degrees of Civil War energized by centuries old sectarian hatreds the dominant Geo-Political Reality is the power vacuum created by the United States’ unseemly rush to the exits. Now all view America as neither an enemy to be feared nor an ally to be relied on.
Others have not done these things to us. We have done them to ourselves, and until we face up to and resolve the confusions in our own minds things will not get better.
William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Washington Times, Denver Post, and Human Events.