Like all long-suffering fans of the New York Mets, I am on Cloud Nine courtesy of Johan Santana, whose recent no-hitter — in the team’s 8,020th game, during its 51st season — was the first in Mets history. My enthusiasm did not ebb, not by a fraction of a quark, when Hugo Chávez briefly interrupted his Bolivar-Marxist thuggery to join the chorus celebrating Santana, a very different kind of Venezuelan lefty.
That’s because what Chávez and I share is just a rooting interest. It does not make us what my friend Clifford D. May might call “strange bedfellows.” Cliff’s recent NRO column, “The Battle of Syria,” not only misses this distinction; it miscasts advocacy for American non-intervention in Syria as de facto alliance with that country’s brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad, and, by extension, with Assad’s equally barbaric backers in Iran.
When I argued, in the column to which Cliff is responding, that Mitt Romney and the Republican party’s transnational-progressive wing had aligned themselves with al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood against Assad, I was not saying that, as between competing evils, these GOP heavyweights had a mere rooting interest in seeing Sunni supremacists prevail over Shiite supremacists. I was pointing out that they were bent on empowering one set of America’s enemies against another. This is no passive preference. The Butch & Sundance team of John McCain and Lindsey Graham are not just cheering on their team, the way Chávez and I were pulling for Johan; the senators want to arm the predominantly Islamist, demonstrably murderous Syrian “opposition” — to strengthen America’s enemies with training and weaponry that America would either coordinate or provide directly.
Yet, in a “two can play that game” retort, Cliff asserts that he and other pro-interventionists could just as colorably say that my argument aligns me with MoveOn.org, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, and Iran’s “Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is a wayward analogy, for several reasons.
Let’s consider, again, the objective of the non-interventionists. Cliff misstates it as “opposing efforts to facilitate regime change in Syria.” The non-interventionist is not opposed to Syrian regime change. He is indifferent to it. And that is not because those of us who resist unnecessary U.S. entanglements in Islamist hotbeds are “isolationists,” as the Wilsonian parody posits.
To be sure, we are skeptical of the presumption, championed by progressives, that because the United States is the most important country in the world, every conflict on earth is our business — which is to say, our burden, and in the eyes of many progressives, our fault. But mainly we believe American interventions ought to be driven by vital American interests. Many times, those vital interests are best served by butting out. That is particularly the case in the Muslim Middle East, where hatred of America has a unifying effect on our otherwise fractious enemies.
In Syria, this plays out two ways. First, there is no realistic prospect of regime change favorable to the United States; intervention thus necessarily portends making one set of America’s enemies stronger than they currently are. Second, it is in America’s interest that al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood (including Hamas), the Assad regime, the Iranian mullahs, and Hezbollah all become weaker; non-intervention while they beat each other’s brains in is therefore to our great advantage.
Try a thought experiment. Let’s say there were no ongoing Syrian conflict and none on the horizon. Let’s imagine that, instead of working 24/7 to facilitate Muslim Brotherhood domination of Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, the Obama administration or Butch & Sundance actually used their time to develop a can’t-miss plan to drive a wedge between the Hamas terrorist organization and its lifeline, Iran. Not the pie-in-the-sky we usually get from these quarters — the kinds of plans that bank on Assad’s being a “reformer,” the Brotherhood’s being “largely secular” moderates, or the Libyan “rebels” being Madisonian democrats. I’m talking about a plausible plan that had decent probability of success. What would that have been worth? In light of how well busting up the Iran-Hamas partnership would have served U.S. interests, we’d probably have been willing to wager four or five of Obama’s Solyndra schemes on that — though maybe not the cost of a McCain global-warming boondoggle.
Well guess what? The Syrian conflict has fomented just this trouble in jihadi paradise, and we haven’t had to pay a dime. Hamas is now the problem of its Sunni-supremacist patrons – and they are in no position to provide the Palestinian “resistance” with Iran-level help, not with Egypt broke and Turkey’s economy verging on a major contraction. The Hamas divorce weakens Iran, as does Assad’s teetering. Moreover, the growing divide between pro-Brotherhood Hamas and pro-Assad Hezbollah weakens both, and is thus a setback for global jihadism. Meanwhile, the seamless alliance between the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda, as well as that between Turkey and the array of Sunni supremacists, crystallize for us the folly of seeing either Ankara or any emerging Ikhwan government as a friend of the United States.
By letting events play out naturally — rather than trying to orchestrate them with our usual ham-handed, politically correct, Islamists-are-people-too approach — we find that the anti-Americans are at each other’s throats. I’d love to be able to say this was the result of shrewd maneuvering. In fact, it probably owes to inertia — or to Obama’s realization that another Libya-style misadventure would damage his jittery reelection prospects.
Whatever the reason, the always thrumming but rarely spoken truth of Middle Eastern politics is shouting loud and clear in Syria: Islamic factions abhor the United States even more than they despise each other. When we get involved, they set aside their internecine hatreds and unite against us. When we have enough wit to stay out, however, they set upon each other with a savagery that shocks the West but is, in their culture, quotidian.
Like many champions of Syrian intervention, Cliff is a very smart guy who is making a very basic error: His conviction about the evil on one side of the Syrian conflict is blinding him to the extent of evil that pervades the other side. This, alas, is the story of the Arab Spring.
The most pronounced symptom of Spring Fever is conscious avoidance of the brute fact that mainstream Islam in the Middle East is virulently anti-liberty and anti-American. The symptom manifests in an uncontrollable urge to obscure overwhelming evidence that the ideology we like to call “radical” Islam actually predominates — in reality, it is democratic reform that is radical in this part of the world. In a classic example, which relies on the rose-tinted analysis of Arab Spring enthusiast Amir Taheri, Cliff writes:
In the first round of presidential balloting, the Brotherhood candidate drew only “around a quarter of the electorate” — hardly a ringing vote of confidence for a movement that “has acted as the main opposition for almost a century” and that has “immense resources” at its disposal. . . . Andy rightly observes that a substantial Egyptian voting block is “deathly afraid” of the Islamists.
You read that and you’re thinking: “Hmm, a substantial part of Egypt’s population is against the Islamists; and the Brotherhood got only a quarter of the vote — hardly a ringing vote of confidence for the leaders of the Islamists. Maybe the prospects for democracy in Egypt and the Middle East aren’t so bad after all.” Well . . . not exactly.
Cliff’s last sentence actually refers to my observation that a non-Islamist candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, got “23 percent” of the vote in the first round of presidential balloting. In Cliff’s telling, my “23 percent” has become “substantial.” But how “substantial” is the non-Islamist vote, really? Well, it turns out to be markedly less than the “only around a quarter” — actually, 26 percent — that Cliff grudgingly concedes the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, got. (About 23 million people voted in the election, so a three-point difference translates to about 700,000 people — not insignificant.)
But there’s more that Cliff glides by without noting. Morsi got “only” 26 percent of the vote because the Islamist vote — a vast majority of the electorate — was split among several candidates. And, pace Amir Taheri, Morsi’s haul, though just a portion of the votes cast in favor of Islamists, was actually quite impressive: The military junta currently ruling the country disqualified two Islamist candidates who were widely popular; the less charismatic Morsi was the Brotherhood’s Plan B — but he won anyway.
That an Islamist would win, despite the purportedly “substantial” fear of Islamists, was to be expected, in light of the parliamentary elections. Cliff doesn’t mention those either, but Islamist factions won three-quarters of the vote. In fact, the non-Islamists were out-voted not only by the Brotherhood but by so-called “Salafist” Islamists who are even more extreme. Oh, and about that 23 percent of Egyptians who voted against the Islamists? They didn’t vote for democracy; they voted for Ahmed Shafiq, a relic of the Mubarak regime favored by the military junta. That is, they voted for the dictatorship that is claimed to have given rise to the Arab Spring in the first place — because even that is better than what Sunni supremacism has in store for them.
Cliff misdiagnoses Syria the same way. He argues: “Within the loose coalition fighting Assad, there are freedom fighters — I’m personally acquainted with some. But yes, Islamists are in the mix as well. Should Assad fall, who will end up on top? We can’t be certain.” This, again, conflates our hopes with our reality.
I am personally acquainted with Zuhdi Jasser — he is an authentic Muslim moderate and American patriot. But I do not permit my admiration for him to mislead me into thinking he represents anything more than a thin ray of hope along a cold, dark firmament. I do not try to convince myself that because his eccentric brand of Islam resonates with me, it must have a realistic prospect of gaining traction in the Middle East, where the Islamic supremacists of al-Azhar University, the Brotherhood, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation call the doctrinal tune. I support Jasser, but I wouldn’t bet my country’s security on the prevalence of his interpretation of Islam — I hope for the best, but I plan for the Brotherhood.
The fact that Cliff knows there are true democrats in the Syrian mix does not make them representative of the Syrian mainstream — no more than Egypt’s outlier democrats can camouflage the predominance of that country’s Islamists. To say Islamists are merely “in the mix” in the Syrian opposition is like saying there might be a spendthrift or two in the Greek government. Of course Cliff is right that no outcome is “certain” before it happens. But Syria is a 74 percent Sunni Muslim country, and the Islamist influence is patent. If real democrats were a force in the opposition, Sheikh Qaradawi would not be a powerful influence over it, and al-Qaeda’s presence would not be felt, much less welcomed. We’ve already seen this show play out in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia. With the Brotherhood long entrenched at the front of Assad’s opposition, and with the Obama administration and the McCain wing effectively endorsing the Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council, there is no more doubt about who would be running post-Assad Syria than there is about who would win if the New York Giants played your local high-school football squad.
Obviously, Cliff and other interventionists who care passionately about American national security do not want to help deliver Syria into the Brotherhood’s clutches. They relieve themselves of grappling with this foreseeable consequence of their policy preference, however, by rationalizing that “Iran is the single most important strategic threat facing the U.S. — hands down.” Since “Iran’s most important ally and asset” is the Assad regime, the reasoning goes, ousting Assad is an imperative, regardless of what replaces him.
With great respect, this line of thinking fails to appreciate that threat environments are not static. It is not 2001 anymore. As I’ve argued before, Iran did pose a singular threat back then. Now, it has an able competitor in the struggle against the West. It is in our interest that both of them be taken down several notches — especially if they’re willing to do it to each other.
No one appreciates more than I do that Iran remains a paramount threat. Indeed, it is odd to find Cliff suggesting that I have aligned myself with Ayatollah Khamenei when, as he knows, no one this side of Michael Ledeen has been more insistent than I have that Iran is a dangerous, incorrigible enemy of the United States. And unlike Michael, I’ve been resigned to the inevitability that it will take military force to eradicate the current regime: I don’t believe sanctions will ever be sufficient (certainly not with Russia and China committed to undermining their effectiveness); I’m not convinced that moral and logistical support for the regime’s opponents would result in the mullahs’ toppling; and, contrary to most of my friends on the national-security right, I have no great hope that whatever came after the mullahs would be pro-American — just that it would be unlikely to adopt the current dictators’ “Death to America” foreign policy. That’s why I support destroying the regime that has been at war with us for 30 years and promptly leaving — it’s for the Iranians to sort it out. I think we should have done that over a decade ago, when Iran collaborated in the 9/11 attack, if not in 1996, when they murdered 19 members of our air force at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. I would not have sat on my hands and prayed for sanctions to work while the mullahs killed our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for ten years.
In Cliff’s view, Iran’s being “within a hair’s breadth of obtaining nuclear weapons” dwarfs all other considerations. I disagree. I’ve never thought the nukes were the biggest problem when it came to Iran — they are just another very powerful reason to do what needs to be done. But what would make me more fearful than Iranian nukes would be if Iran were within a hair’s breadth of infiltrating the counsels of our government’s policies, of dramatically influencing our government’s counterterrorism protocols, and of abrading the constitutional liberties of the American people. Fortunately, Iran is not in that position. Ominously, though, the Muslim Brotherhood is not just within a hair’s breadth — it is inside the wire. Unlike Iran, our Sunni supremacist enemies have spent the last 60 years building a significant infrastructure inside our country. They have made significant inroads in our institutions — particularly, academe, finance, media, the law, and the think tanks.
Sunni supremacism is now ascendant in the Middle East. The fallout of the military’s attempted coup in Egypt this week remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that the generals were moved to act by the palpable danger to Egyptian and regional stability posed by an Islamist government whose ambitions include Israel’s destruction. Egypt’s Sunni supremacists have bonded with Turkey’s Islamist government, Hamas, Libya, Tunisia, and other Brotherhood hubs, particularly Qaradawi’s headquarters in Qatar — now also home to the Taliban’s leadership. They have grown into a force to be reckoned with — virulently anti-American and anti-Western.
The prospect of mullahs with nukes alarms me no less than it alarms Cliff. But I am less alarmed by prospects and potentials than I am by what is already happening in Europe, where the Brotherhood’s stealth jihad is achieving the gradual conquest that Qaradawi predicted it would. The triumph of Sunni supremacism in the Middle East also strengthens the hand of the Sunni supremacists massed inside our borders. We should be regarding them as hostiles, but they’ve been welcomed as consultants. It is not Iran that is besieging the counterterrorism strategy by which Ray Kelly’s NYPD has kept the jihad’s No. 1 target safe for the last eleven years. It is not Iran that has the Pentagon so intimidated it cannot bring itself to utter the words “Islam” and “jihad” in a 75-page report on the jihadist mass-murder at Fort Hood, the worst Islamic terror attack in the U.S. since 9/11.
Cliff, in conclusion, offers up a parade of horribles that could follow from Iran’s acquisition of nuclear arms. I agree that they are all bad, and to be avoided. But none of them remotely improves the case for intervention in Syria. If Iran attacks the Gulf states, dares to close the Strait of Hormuz, or has the temerity to threaten our Fifth Fleet, we should — and I expect we would — attack Iran directly and decisively. We don’t need, in Syria of all hellholes, to wage a proxy war against Iran that has the effect of strengthening our other set of enemies.
And it is odd for Cliff, in making a case for intervention in Syria, to raise the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran increasing its influence in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is precisely our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan that so strengthened Iran’s hand in those countries. To be sure, the post-9/11 mission to smash al-Qaeda’s safe haven and crack down on rogue regimes that facilitate jihadism was essential. We should not have dawdled for over a year before taking out Saddam, and Iran was a much more committed and threatening enemy — the war would have gone a lot better if we had attacked the challenge at its main source, which, for all the reasons Cliff marshals, was Iran. But the manner in which we intervened — ignoring Iranian provocations while elevating the construction of sharia-“democracies” over the defeat of America’s enemies — made it possible for Iran to spread its tentacles throughout Iraq while fueling the insurgencies against our troops both there and in Afghanistan.
In any event, if you really want to weaken Iran, then stay out of Syria and let it play out. Let the mullahs try to prop up the reeling Assad while the alliances with Sunni supremacists that they have spent two decades building disintegrate. It is in our interests that not only Iran but all of our enemies be weakened. What Cliff’s NRO essay labels the “Battle of Syria” is doing just that. The best thing we can do for American national security is: stay out of it and let them have at each other.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.