Nothing has ever been as it seemed in the Middle East, but this condition is more aggravated than ever now. No one really has any idea what is going to emerge from the overthrow of the government in Egypt. There is no precedent for democracy’s flourishing in a country with such large problems of poverty and low levels of education, except perhaps India (which had stronger elites and British institutions). And there are no poles of strength in the country except the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood. The efforts of the Brotherhood, in a public-relations campaign with susceptible and wishful Western media outlets such as the New York Times, to portray itself as the soul of moderation, are reassuring to the extent that the Brotherhood considers Western opinion worth the effort, but are not credible on their merits. The same can be said of the attempt of the former head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, to be accepted as a peace-loving democrat. That pose flies in the face of a long career as an Israelophobic warmonger.
The time-honored first step in the descent to the tawdriest forms of oppression, officially tolerated mob violence against religious minorities, has been conducted against Christians since even before the (unseemly but not exactly premature) departure of Mubarak. Until the latest outrages, the Holy See was the only source of audible foreign protests.
Syria’s President Assad and Yemen’s President Saleh have long since passed with flying colors the litmus test of whether to fire live ammunition at protesters in large numbers, and whether such orders will be carried out. Less comprehensible is Secretary of State Clinton’s comment, four days after the repression began, and well before it reached its recent murderous level, that Assad was “a reformer,” a comment she presumably regrets now, whose accuracy depends on to whom she was comparing him. Saleh is a sly old fox who has been fairly helpful to the United States, and the U.S. policy of not encouraging his opponents, who include a sizeable branch of al-Qaeda, is very understandable.
The Euro-American appeasement of Syria’s Alawite regime (the Alawis account for only 11 percent of the population) is inexplicable, other than from a conviction that any replacement might be worse. That should hardly be a consideration, as any replacement would be unlikely to be such a slavish puppet of and conduit for the Iranians, vitally assisting Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Jihad, and insurrectionist forces in Iraq. That is the source of Syria’s importance; it is not an oil-exporting country and its internal government is of no interest to the Western powers, as long as its millennia-old penchant for repression doesn’t descend to Khmer Rouge or Rwandan proportions. No one in Syria is calling for a Libya-style intervention, but the weak response of the West has been contemptible.
Iran is the greatest threat in the region, and the site of the greatest failure of the Obama administration’s foreign and security policy. The appeasement of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei after their phony election and the widespread public disturbances, which the regime seriously opposed only with the thugs of the governing political apparatus, not the armed forces — effectively flunking, as Mubarak did, the Assad-Saleh litmus test described above — was a terrible miscue. So has been the feeble response, apart from computer-hacking, to the regime’s relentless pursuit of a nuclear military capability. Regimes that the evident majority of the population actively detests, with no institutionally accessible means of regime change, are fundamentally vulnerable, and usually are reduced to the ancient constitutional paradigm of despotism tempered by assassination. This process should be much more energetically assisted, and Iran could be a country sufficiently advanced and rich to be able to support a fairly democratic system.