The Corner

First, Do No Harm in the Middle East

At some point, the Obama administration is going to recognize a simple paradox that has been apparent to almost everyone but them: In theory, those pro-American autocratic regimes that are tottering or gone (the Gulf States, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, etc.) should have been more amenable to gradual progressive change. They did not exercise so savage a degree of control as was the norm elsewhere in the Middle East. In matters of religious fundamentalism and intolerance, they were sometimes more reasonable than their own populaces. They were less likely to foment unrest in the region at large, seek to acquire WMD, or harbor terrorists. 

In contrast, totalitarian autocratic regimes that are anti-American (Libya, Syria, Iran, etc.) are far crueler — and far less likely to fall, given their readiness to use unlimited violence against their own. They were often more rabid in their ideologies than their own populations, and far more likely to foment unrest in the region at large, etc.

Given that paradox, it seems like it would have been a viable policy for the U.S. to gently urge change in the former nations while avoiding calls for their abrupt collapse, and openly support dissidents in the latter nations while communicating a clear, though private caveat that, with a $1.6 trillion deficit and two large commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, we could not readily provide direct military support and so rebels should not be misled into attempting revolutions that could only succeed with our sizable intervention.

Instead, we ended up largely silent in the cases of Syria and Iran, and vocal in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt. In Libya, we intervened and then quit, earning disdain from the rebels and the Qaddafi government alike. All this against a backdrop of having spent two years apologizing for fostering a viable consensual government in Iraq, and two years of constant pressure on democratic Israel. The result may well be escalating oil prices, alienation from the Gulf kingdoms, Islamist-Turkey-like states on all Israel’s borders, open disdain for our weakness from emboldened states such as Libya, Iran, and Syria, and utter distrust from any pro-American allies left in the region that might be contemplating gradual change to preempt rebellion.

What is left? Perhaps the administration has no interest in defending (rather than apologizing for) the past conduct of the United States in the Middle East, no idea of how one country differs from another in that region, no idea of what our general interests are (e.g., stable oil prices; responsible nations that oppose radical Islam, fight terror, and oppose nuclear proliferation; reasonable buffer states with Israel; and gradual change in the direction of economic openness and political transparency), and no confidence to see our decisions through. If so, it would be wiser just to shut up and keep out of the region rather than to make a bad situation far worse, which is what we accomplishing now.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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