Politics & Policy

A Dark Arab Spring

President Jimmy Carter and the Shah of Iran
It’s a challenge for U.S. foreign policy.

There cannot possibly be anyone left of sound mind who imagines that the Arab Spring was anything more than seismic shifts in various countries to remove unpopular despots; have tribal, sectarian, or ideological bloodletting of different levels of ferocity, according to the temper of the countries; and then observe the reassumption of authority by whatever new despotism emerged at the end of strenuous Darwinian internecine struggle. The Egyptian army acquiesced in the departure of its champion, President Mubarak, when his position became unsustainable and, after more than 30 years, he no longer possessed the popularity or determination to retain his authority.

The whole idea of free elections was always a confidence trick, a stall, in which the Muslim Brotherhood — which brought down Mubarak, and had, 31 years before, assassinated his predecessor, Anwar Sadat — showed some restraint in not taunting the army, promised not to run a presidential candidate, and envisioned a regime in which the legislature would dominate and the army would be well paid. As the constitutional council failed to produce even an indicative constitution, a game of chicken ensued, in which the army stated that it would not hand over power until there was a constitution, i.e., one in which they could either retain power or take it back at any time. The Brotherhood then said they would run a presidential candidate after all. Army-dominated agencies disqualified most candidates, and finally gutted the powers of both the congress and the president, and delayed at their convenience the confirmation of the universally assumed fact that the Brotherhood candidate (though not its first candidate) had won the election.

#ad#It all somewhat resembles the recent history of Algeria, whose constitution empowered and instructed the army to be the guarantor of democracy. This led in 1992 to the interruption of a two-stage election that was going to elevate an anti-democratic Islamist party, and also to a prolonged civil war, in which 300,000 Algerians died. Egyptians are less violent than Algerians, and despite the Ruritanian over-costuming and parading of the Egyptian army, and all the pompous pronunciamentos of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of that country, the Egyptian army has never been overly frightening, even when it did briefly pierce the Israeli Bar Lev Line in 1973. The Algerian army, however, which fought through the war of independence with France (1954–62), in which perhaps 500,000 people died, is a serious and an unambiguously victorious force and has reimposed secular order.

Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, is unstable, and Libya, Yemen, and, of course, Syria, are virtually in chaos. Egypt will go on floundering, as neither the army nor the Brotherhood has the slightest ability to pull Egypt out of its economic dyspepsia, aggravated by an unsustainably high birthrate. There is, unfortunately, no reason to be confident that Iraq will make the cut either: There is still no real progress toward federalism in the sharing of oil revenues, and Baghdad’s writ does not run in Kurdistan. Maliki may hang on to power, but he cannot be said to have been reelected. In the broad arc of the Islamic world, from the Atlantic to the gates of India, only Turkey, Morocco, and Jordan have shown the slightest aptitude for self-government. Turkey has been a Great or at least significant Power for 600 years. Morocco was an independent country for centuries before the French occupied it shortly before World War I. And Jordan — “invented” as he wrote, by Winston Churchill, “on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Jerusalem” in 1921 — has a crafty Hashemite dynasty in which a Bedouin minority carefully rules a Palestinian majority.

The potential for most Islamic countries to become completely dysfunctional and erupt in atrocities and disintegrate into terrorist breeding grounds is now too familiar to merit much elaboration. The George W. Bush crusade for democracy — and, to be fair to him, it was the policy of Jimmy Carter also — now appears to be a product of the same painfully naïve school that held in 1964 and 1965 that we could defeat the Communists in South Vietnam by building schools, bridges, and clinics, as if the opposition response would be anything except to blow them up and kill anyone who collaborated. Despite the vast experience accumulated in America’s unexampled rise from colonial obscurity to unprecedented paramountcy in the world in less than three long lifetimes from Yorktown to the fall of the Berlin Wall, there seems to be some hobgoblin that washes and hijacks the brains of American policy planners from time to time and propels them like Gadarene robots toward an ahistorical fantasy that altruism alone will make the world right.

#page#Carter’s naïveté dispensed with the shah and gave us the ayatollahs, whose now-despised minion, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was masquerading as an environmentalist at the anomalous Rio de Janeiro Earth Conference last week, railing against “slavery, colonialism, and record plundering of cultures, identities, and possessions of hundreds of millions of defenseless people, as well as the destruction of their integrity, freedom, and rights.” I have not often been moved to fly to the defense of President Obama’s farrago of policy disasters, but I can understand the impulse to be less dogmatic and more practical in selecting the beneficiaries of America’s attention than was his predecessor, who brought Hamas to power in Gaza and Hezbollah in Beirut, in his quest for popular government. But that Obama would choose as his point of divergence the whitewashing of Ahmadinejad’s brutal theft of the 2009 Iranian election was, to say the least, improvident.

This president hasn’t been played for a fool as thoroughly as George W. Bush was by the Pakistanis. The spectacle in the last few weeks of the supreme court of Pakistan impeaching the prime minister and detaining him for 30 minutes, for the heinous offense of not indicting the president for his alleged light-fingered practices, and then blocking the elevation of the new prime minister with allegations of corruption, until the chief justice had to recuse himself because of similar allegations against his own son, aggravates the embarrassment of having sent billions to Pakistan, which has generally behaved more as an enemy of NATO in Afghanistan than an ally. It has supported the Haqqani Taliban and barred resupply of NATO forces in Afghanistan through Pakistan, and it harbored bin Laden only a few miles from the headquarters of the unit that routinely marches out from its barracks every few years to throw out the elected government and replace it with a regime led by the current commander of the Pakistani army.

#ad#There was a time when American presidents knew when to play the democratic card and when to address the higher interests of the Western Alliance. Franklin D. Roosevelt knew that the colonial empires would disintegrate, but he wanted all the colonies in trusteeships overseen by a United Nations that the U.S. and the British Commonwealth would dominate (as they did for the first 15 years) until they were ready for self-government. (Stalin told him at Tehran in 1943 that 30 years would be too long a wait for the Vietnamese; he was correct.) Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower had no gas pains defining the Free World as including Franco, Salazar, the shah, Syngman Rhee, the House of Saud, Turkish generals, and the over-bemedaled juntas of South America. In FDR’s phrase about Nicaragua’s Somoza, each may have been an SOB, “but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.”

Even Eisenhower blundered by revoking financing for Nasser’s Aswan Dam, which provoked the Suez crisis just as the post-Churchill British leadership (the Anthony Eden government) took leave of its senses and tried to resolve the resulting seizure of the Suez Canal with a harebrained conspiracy with Israel to seize the Sinai while the British and French masqueraded as peacekeepers as they (ineffectually) invaded Egypt. John F. Kennedy’s promise to “bear any burden, oppose any foe,” etc. led straight to Vietnam, accelerated by the self-administered aphrodisiac that the Cuban missile crisis, in which the CIA had no idea that nuclear warheads and 40,000 Soviet troops were already in Cuba, was a triumph of “critical path” calibrated policy deduction. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sorted out the horrible mess Lyndon Johnson left them and were rewarded with impeachment and unwavering hatred for salvaging the war the Democrats had started and effectively lost.

Carter’s inanities, culminating in a very questionable SALT II treaty, induced the Russians to occupy Afghanistan and become hyperactively mischievous in Angola, Nicaragua, and elsewhere. Reagan and George H. W. Bush settled everything down and won the Cold War; history was declared to have ended at its Hegelian synthesis in the triumph of democracy. We have now gone back to the Vietnam–El Salvador era, in which alliance with America was like an insurance policy that works as long as premiums are paid and no claims are made: As soon as the heat comes up, the liberal media declare the ally to be unworthy of American support.

If the country thought about it at all, the United States would use this election to rewind these last 20 years and do the necessary to be strong in the world: prudent growth economics, the making of a clear distinction between threats and mere irritation — and effective counter-pressure (or, if necessary, force) against the first, and the lofty indifference of the supremely powerful toward the second. We know the incumbent can’t do it. No sane person would bet the ranch on W. M. Romney, but in these terms, it’s now a one-horse race.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and, just released, A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.

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