The Middle East: All Bad Choices

by Victor Davis Hanson
From Libya to Iran, our past actions have drastically limited our current choices.

Survey the Middle East, and there is nothing about which to be optimistic.

Iran is either fueling violence in Syria or racing toward a bomb, or both.

Syria is past imploding. Take your pick in a now-Manichean standoff between an authoritarian, thuggish Bashar Assad and al-Qaeda franchises that envision a Taliban-like state. There is increasingly not much in between, other than the chaos of something like another Sudan.

Our Libyan “leading from behind” led to Mogadishu-like chaos and Benghazi. Do we even remember the moral urgency of bombing Tripoli as articulated by the ethical triad of Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power?

A day late and a dollar short, we piggybacked on the Arab Spring in Egypt, damning the damnable Mubarak without much thought of who or what would take his place. The result is that a kleptocratic dictatorship gave way to a one-vote/one-time Muslim Brotherhood theocracy — and then full circle back to the familiar strongmen with epaulets and sunglasses. Even in the Middle East, it is hard to get yourself hated all at once by Islamists, the military, the Arab Street, Christian minorities, and secular reformists. In Egypt, the Obama administration has somehow managed all that and more. I wonder about all those supposedly pro-Western Google-using types who toppled Mubarak: Are they still there? Were they ever there? For now, the military is engaged in an existential struggle against the Islamists, who retaliate by going after Christians — a crime of enormous proportions going on throughout the Middle East, which is completely ignored by Western governments.

In Iraq, would it have been that hard to leave 5,000 U.S. troops at a fortified air base so that they could monitor Iraq’s air space, hunt down remnants of al-Qaeda, and keep the Maliki government somewhat constitutional — given the toll up to that point in American blood and treasure? In terms of strategic policy and U.S. self-interest, the answer is no; in terms of Obama’s 2012 reelection talking points, certainly it would have been problematic.

What is left to be said about our twelve years in Afghanistan? Obama’s 2008 “good war” that he was going to “put our eye back on” descended into surges, deadlines, withdrawals, musical-chair commanders, drone proxy wars, and finally inattention. The only remaining mystery is how many Afghan refugees and asylum seekers do we let in once the Taliban replays the North Vietnamese scenario and Kabul becomes a sort of Saigon 1975.

The West Bank is quiet to the degree that the Obama administration does not give loud lectures on solving the “Middle East problem” — as if Egyptians were killing Copts over Jewish settlements or Syrians leveling towns because of an Israeli checkpoint. But if John Kerry keeps trying to match Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, then we may yet stir things up enough for another intifada.

Turkey was supposed to be Obama’s model for an authentic Middle East, the circle of Islamic democracy squared by Erdogan’s New Ottomanism. For now we are in the surreal situation of pointing to Turkey as the model of compatibility between Islamism and democracy as Erdogan is doing his best to make the two incompatible.

Obama ran in 2008 on the notion of resetting the Middle East — his qualifications as a new sort of messianic leader being little more than that he was a utopian African-American novice senator with an Islamic middle name, and thus the opposite of the supposedly hated Texan George Bush. That was the subtext of every word Obama spoke for two years, culminating in the Al Arabiya interview and the Cairo speech. Five years later, the region is in chaos, and American popularity there is still at historical lows. False affinities and cheap visuals turn out to be a poor substitute for no-nonsense talk backed by strength.

What is the current status of the war on terror? It is something waged against somebody, but what and how and why, we are not being told. I think Islamists are the terrorist bad guys trying to kill us, but who knows, since the Obama administration has defined jihad as a holy struggle, had classified the Tsarnaevs as poor political refugees, and considers Major Nisan a danger to the Army’s diversity program? About April or May 2009, Guantanamo was virtually closed, renditions were declared over, tribunals and preventive detentions left the side of the barn wall, and the ghost of George Bush kept droning thousands of poor innocents. But do we remember when Senator/candidate Obama referred to the drone bombings by saying, “We’ve got to get the job done there, and that requires us to have enough troops so that we’re not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there.” When I heard that, I supposed he wanted a vast curtailment of the drone war and a new, rugged conflict on the ground in Afghanistan. Six years later, it hasn’t turned out that way.

What are our options at this point?

They are all bad — but perhaps not equally bad.

1. The tiny-stick-and-loud-talk status quo. From time to time, Obama’s Cairo-like speeches are at least delivered well. He could continue to emphasize America’s outreach, or his own unique commonalities with the Islamic world, or the absence of an American colonial past in the region, spiced still with jabs at George Bush’s polarizing policies. The now-tired talking points of affinities between the American Revolution and the Arab Spring might yet work now and then to show concern and, along with U.S. aid, might be played up as a policy of sorts by our new state media.

These banalities might be toughened up with more rhetorical red lines to Syria, professed deadlines to Iran, and leading-from-behind strategies in Libya. We could assure the French and the Brits of more clandestine support should they take the lead again as they did in Mali and Libya.

John Kerry seems a disciple of this school, and on occasion, despite his ponderousness and self-satisfied manner, he can still level an Obama-like empty threat or turn a pseudo-Lincolnesque banality. I am sarcastic but not entirely sarcastic, given that the present veneer of appearing engaged might be better than appearing disengaged.

2. Neo-isolation. By 2030 America will be energy independent, one way or another. Strategic significance is shifting to the Pacific, given the rise of China, India, and the Asian Tigers, especially in comparison with the stagnant Mediterranean lake. The latter is historically comparable to what it was not a.d. 100 or even 1400, but more like 1830. Southern Europe mopes along in the economic doldrums. New energy sources have lessened the importance of Mediterranean navigation, and Cairo, Damascus, and Tripoli don’t seem to offer much more dynamism than Tangiers or Lagos.

We have strategic and humanitarian interests, of course, in the region, but, with a $17 trillion debt, in comparison to what? For many Americans, after Afghanistan and Iraq, preempting Iran’s nuclear program, intervening in Syria, or rebuilding Egypt is a bridge too far.

If there is a theme of the last decade, it is that whatever the U.S. does, the Arab Street does not like it. We can debate the role of human passions like envy and jealousy, or the modern therapeutic notion of victimization, but do any of these elemental reasons matter any more, given that the American public has largely lost interest in whether the Islamic Middle East considers us friendly or hostile? In this regard, the implosion of Obama’s outreach has changed the question from whether they are angry at us to whether we care — or whether we are not angrier at them.

3. Whack-a-mole. From time to time, America has preferred the empty but nevertheless sometimes emotionally satisfying tactic of sending missiles and bombs — or now drones — after bad guys. If the result was always small, so was the cost. Shelling the Bekaa Valley, bombing Qaddafi’s headquarters in 1986, blowing up an African pharmaceutical factory, or sending some cruise missiles in the general direction of Osama bin Laden — all those were a sort of cheap containment, the precursors of the current policy of incinerating terrorist suspects in Yemen or Pakistan.

True, as in Libya, even limited interventions of this sort would mean we would have to lie again to the U.N. and the Russians about confining our operations to “no-fly zones” and “humanitarian efforts” (“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”), but it might stop or lessen a bit the threats against American interests. Or, less grandly, we might not officially intervene at all but just shoot off stuff and break things: If you kill an American ambassador, expect a drone; if you storm an American embassy, look for bombs. That such retaliations might be inaccurate or irrelevant (as so often in the past) is secondary to the expectation that they will follow any attack on U.S. interests or personnel. Of course, the impotence of this choice is what we were reacting against when we went into Afghanistan and Iraq following 9/11.

4. Iraq redux. We go whole hog and topple Assad; then we train the new Syrian army, with State Department types instructing the good Syrian dissidents in the arts of consensual government. That way Hezbollah is checked, Iran is rebuffed, and there is a chance of something better for the Syrian people.

I think right now there is less than zero support for this fourth option.

5. Just a few — real — red lines. We also could accept the hopeless situation but silently adopt a few red lines that reflect only U.S. interests: Iran cannot have the bomb and should expect something quite bad if it is on the verge of a nuclear test. We ensure that Israel is well supplied so that it can continue its deterrence against its enemies. That is about it.

Our moral and occasional non-military material support would not be for a Middle Eastern general X, reformer Y, or Islamist Z, but simply for the idea of consensual government — not one-time plebiscites — and the rule of constitutional law. To the degree that this is absent, we would be indifferent to the country in question — not necessarily hostile, but non-supportive. To the degree that there is real progress toward such a goal, we would give encouragement and limited aid.

In this fifth option, we would expect the worst in a world of misogyny, tribalism, anti-Semitism, religious fundamentalism and intolerance, dictatorship, and statism. Meanwhile, we would ensure that our fiscal house is in order, become energy independent, and not promise any help we could not deliver or threaten anyone whom we are not willing to attack.

I think most Americans would favor this last option, but at this point a complete break from the dysfunctional Middle East would be a close second.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Books.