W Gets A Third Term In The Middle East

President George W Bush

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With the forces of humanitarianism and international law, or at least the forces of his tribal and religious enemies, closing in on his Tripoli lair, Africa’s King of Kings and Loon of Loons is on the verge of overthrow.And in Damascus, Butcher Assad, the world’s most notorious opthamologist, watched the Great Loon’s last stand as he contemplated the prospect of economic sanctions that could cut into his bullet and thug budget, reducing the rate at which he is able to slaughter his opponents and possibly even threatening his hold on power.

Via Meadia has wanted both the Loon and the Butcher gone for a long time; we only wish the Dear Leader of North Korea and the Lion of Zimbabwe were packing their luggage under similar time pressure.  They can be strung up in the streets like Mussolini, they can kill themselves in their last redoubts like Hitler, they can go to the Hague like Milosevic, or they can go to Saudi Arabia like Idi Amin.  (Not acceptable: going like Baby Doc to the south of France.) But they need to go.

What this means for the people of Libya and Syria will only slowly become clear. The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions were less disruptive and violent than the Libyan civil war, and both countries possessed institutions stronger than anything left in Libya today.  The future is still murky in Egypt and Tunisia; six months from now the future of Libya will likely also still be hard to predict.

Strikingly, much of the celebratory commentary over the fall of Tripoli overlooked the comparison to the fall of Baghdad when jubilation soon gave way to other emotions.  “Mission accomplished!” was the dominant theme on the nets.  Memories are short in the Tweet Age, but 2003 was not all that long ago.

Since the Libya conflict went on so much longer than predicted, the allies and the rebels have had plenty of time to develop plans for the aftermath.  We will now begin to learn how effectively the planning time was used.  I hope for the best and believe we must support the administration as it works with Libyans and other allies to restore order as quickly as possible.  Worst case there could be revenge killings and feuds in much of the country; best case it will take time to for this country to recover from 44 years of brutal, thuggish and amateurish mismanagement.

The international consequences of the fall of Qaddafi and, hopefully, of his Syrian colleague, will also take time to play out.  (At a minimum, let’s hope that Qaddafi’s interrogation forces him to reveal once and for all how his name is actually spelled.)  But there is one fact that needs to be pointed out because nobody really wants this to be true.  That truth is that the United States has become more powerful in the Middle East today than at any time since the early 1950s.  Perhaps not since President Eisenhower’s CIA helped restore the Shah in Iran has the US loomed this large in the political calculations of Middle Eastern regimes.

This is partly because US military power has an unrivalled global reach, but it is also because the US alliance network in the Middle East is stronger than it has ever been.  With the NATO countries including Turkey on the one hand, and the support of key Arab countries on the other, the United States (when wisely guided) is if anything more powerful now in the region than at any time ever.

Neither President Obama’s critics nor his defenders really want to look at this situation straight on.  His critics would have to acknowledge that far from capitulating to our enemies and giving away the store, President Obama has in some respects improved America’s regional position.  But his defenders must also squirm; in general, President Obama succeeds where he adopts or modifies the policies of the Bush administration.  Where (as on Israel) he has tried to deviate, his troubles begin.

The most irritating argument anyone could make in American politics is that President Obama, precisely because he seems so liberal, so vacillating, so nice, is a more effective neoconservative than President Bush.  As is often the case, the argument is so irritating partly because it is so true.

President Obama is pushing a democracy agenda in the Middle East that is as aggressive as President Bush’s; he adopts regime change by violence if necessary as a core component of his regional approach and, to put it mildly, he is not afraid to bomb.  But where President Bush’s tough guy posture (“Bring ‘Em On!”) alienated opinion abroad and among liberals at home, President Obama’s reluctant warrior stance makes it easier for others to work with him.

In some ways, President Obama’s Middle Eastern foreign policy does for President Bush’s democratization policy what President Eisenhower did for President Truman’s containment doctrine.  In both cases, a necessary and useful foreign policy had become deeply unpopular; Eisenhower implemented containment but made the country feel better about it — partly by rhetorical shifts, partly by tweaking the execution.  Obama is trying to do the same thing with Bush’s transformation agenda.

In many ways we are living through George W. Bush’s third term in the Middle East, and neither President Obama’s friends nor his enemies want to admit it.  President Obama, in his own way and with his own twists, continues to follow the core Bush policy of nudging and sometimes pushing nasty regimes out of power, aligning the US with the wave of popular discontent in the region even as that popular sentiment continues to dislike, suspect and reject many aspects of American power and society.  And that policy continues to achieve ambivalent successes: replacing old and crustily anti-American regimes, rooted deeply in the culture of terror and violence within and beyond their borders, with weaker, more open and — on some issues at least — more accommodating ones.

Additionally, the combination of tough military attacks on Al Qaeda and its affiliates wherever they rear their ugly heads and the opening of new political space in the Middle East continues to marginalize the acolytes of Bin Laden.  There was a time when Bin Laden hoped to become the voice of Arab protest and resistance; the US had killed his dream long before Team Six got to his house.

Obama is better than Bush at building international coalitions and managing the appearance of American policy in a contentious world.  In Libya, Obama faced a constraint not dissimilar to Bush’s situation in Iraq.  Both presidents got something from the Security Council, but neither got enough.  Bush responded by defying the body over the failed “second resolution” on Iraq; Obama simply ignored the gap between what the resolution allowed and what the US needed, stretching a humanitarian mandate to effect regime change.

Gratuitous snubs to global sensibilities were one of the Bush administration’s most expensive failings; when the WMD in Iraq did not appear and the occupation turned into a nightmare, an infuriated world (and many Americans) rejoiced at what they saw as a well deserved comeuppance.  President Obama’s more conciliatory stance does nothing to win over America’s enemies — but it makes it harder for those enemies to mobilize world opinion on their side.  He has also cut the legs off the anti-war movements at home by depriving it of a clear target.  Nobody in America much likes all the wars we are fighting in so many obscure places — but the anti-war movement has been reduced to its irrelevant hard core.

Obama has plenty of faults of his own, and, like Bush’s, his mistakes can be costly.  He has never understood the dynamics of the US-Israel relations or the Israeli-Palestinian issue.  He clearly underestimated the conflict in Libya; we shall see whether he and the allies have underestimated the problems of reconstruction.  The combination of a surge in Afghanistan with the naming of a date for withdrawal sent mixed signals and probably encouraged the Taliban to fight on.

But since the world hates Obama less than it hated Bush, the US and the global press are more forgiving of his errors, and pass lightly over shortcomings and contradictions that, if Bush were still in the White House, would be the mainstay of the nightly news.  When was the last time you read something about Obama’s failure to close Guantanamo?

The result is that the advance of US power in the Middle East that began under Bush has continued and developed under Obama.  Our worst enemies disappear; the Gulf monarchies are more dependent on us than ever; the coalition against Iran deepens and strengthens.

Yet Obama, like Bush, will be hard pressed to turn this power to good account.  The American ability to turf out dictators does not translate into popularity on the Arab street — or into more official support for peace with Israel.  The United States has the biggest hammer in the room, but that doesn’t help when the jobs we really want done require a screwdriver.  Unfortunately nobody has all of the screwdrivers the Middle East needs; many of its problems will remain vexingly unfixed for the foreseeable future.

America’s new strength in the region is due to two main factors.  One is the decline in the power and legitimacy of the Arab dictatorships; the other is the new political reality created by the Iraq War.  I will deal with the second point in a subsequent post; as the Libyan regime shudders through what one hopes are its death throes, and Damascus shakes at Tripoli’s fall, it makes more sense to focus on the forces that have weakened the once sturdy dictatorships of the Arab world.

The Arab autocracies were products of a certain historical time and show similar signs of weakness.  Qaddafi and Assad have been anti-American thugs in the mould of (though neither as murderous or as dangerous as) Saddam Hussein.  Welding pre-modern tribal loyalties to the carapace of a totalitarian state, they terrified the populace by savage repression married to the centralization of all economic, political and institutional power within a tight ruling circle.  As with the Soviet dictators, the ideologies they professed were tools rather than guides; the dictator was the sole interpreter of the ruling ideology and so ideas became an instrument of power rather than a source of authoritative moral or political principles.

Those dictatorships in the Arab world and elsewhere were an artifact of the post-colonial, post World War Two environment.  They often arose in newly independent territories where there was no long pre-colonial history of unity.  The territories known today as Syria, Iraq, Libya (not to mention others around the world like Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) became independent without much collective identity.  Religious and tribal loyalties were not directed toward the state.

In these circumstances, and not just in the Arab world, military dictatorships or dictatorships based around independence movements quickly took hold.  The number of educated professionals was so small, the economy so simple (and so subject to central control), civil society at the national as opposed to the local or confessional level was so weak, that governments quickly became very powerful, and more often than not authority shifted from “revolutionary committees” and other quasi-institutional arrangements to personalistic dictatorships.  The dictator could buy off intellectuals with government posts (including lush diplomatic appointments involving international travel to various pointless gabfests on human rights and global warming).  The state’s power over the economy meant that close cronies and reliable allies could hold the reins of economic power — which in turn also allowed the dictators to cement the loyalty of the armed forces.

Internationally, these vicious regimes were protected by the struggle between the US and the USSR and by the power of Third Worldism in the international community.  The Soviets were an alternative if not particularly desirable source of technology and trade; the prevalence of dictatorships among the newly independent developing countries protected the Arab dictatorships from criticism.  Third World ideology saw criticism however mild of the practices however depraved of any dictator anywhere as an attack on the rights of all dictators everywhere, and ex-colonial grievances led countries like India to share this concern.  The trade union of the dictators with its ties to the Soviet Union was a formidable adversary for many years.

These days, the dictators face troubles at home and abroad.  At home, the presence of new generations of better educated young people creates demands that are difficult for dictatorial governments to meet.  Communications technology has broken the walls that the dictators in their salad days were able to construct around their people.  Rigid gerontocratic hacks cannot monitor or control the communications practices of new generations with new technologies.

Meanwhile, the costs and inefficiencies of dictatorship rise.  The global economy makes it hard to run the economy of even a decently sized state as a personal possession; foreign investors and purchasers alike demand certain standards of reliability, punctuality and transparency.  Big countries like China can balance the needs of innovation and control in ways that third class nepotistic hackocracies cannot.  The Arab dictatorships entered a death spiral of diminishing economic performance leading to rising popular discontent.  That caused police states and bureaucrats to crack down — which further undermined economic performance and stoked popular rage.

Internationally, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the less remarked on, but very important demise of the unified global south left the dictators with fewer friends and less political cover than before.  East Asian regimes generally have nothing but contempt for the travails of Middle Eastern dictators.  Although the Great Bolivarian Hugo Chavez does his best to preserve the Thug International, staunchly defending all tyrants everywhere, his success is limited.  In both Africa and Latin America, local issues take precedence over Third World solidarity and ideology.

Finally, on the military front, the Arab dictators have fallen hopelessly behind the game.  Asymmetrical warfare does not really work for them.  A dictator does not want to lead an insurgent national resistance; Saddam Hussein’s goal was to rule in a palace, not hide in a hole.  But the clunky crony economies of the dictators and the rigid command structures necessary to keep any colonels from getting ahead of themselves have ensured that each year their military establishments become more worthless when compared to those of a modern great power.  There is a lot of evidence that Saddam Hussein worked hard to create the false impression that he was developing WMD because he was otherwise so helpless.  The pathetic weakness of Syria’s armed forces against any enemy more formidable than an unarmed crowd throwing rocks has to figure into Assad’s strategic calculation in many ways.

Weaker at home and more isolated abroad, the Arab dictators were and are much easier to confront than they used to be.  30 years ago, the elder Assad could defy American pressure.  A Qaddafi might fear Reagan’s bombs, but unless he was physically killed he was unlikely to lose control of the country.  Direct intervention by US or NATO was almost out of the question if for no other reason than caution about the Soviet Union.  (An important note here: the supposedly fast-rising aspiring global hegemon China has not been a factor in the series of Middle East crises.  The USSR in 1973 was an infinitely more important player in Middle Eastern politics than China and Russia combined are today.)

The United States had very little directly to do with this deterioration in the circumstances of the dictators (though by promoting open trade and global development it did much to change the world in ways that, among other things, undermined the crude and primitive states the tyrants had built).  As has so often been the case in our history, we were the beneficiaries of unplanned change.

President Obama began his administration by backing away from Bush’s Middle East policy. Increasingly, he has embraced its key elements.  In some ways he plays the game significantly better than his predecessor; in others he creates his own set of problems. Nevertheless, well over half way through President Obama’s tenure in office, we can see that regime change and democracy promotion remain the basis of American strategy in the Middle East — and that force is not excluded when it comes to achieving American aims.

The victory in Libya is satisfying, but the future of Syria is the most important issue in the Middle East today.  The destruction of the bond between Syria and Iran is America’s most important strategic goal; the fall of Qaddafi is chiefly important at this point because it increases the pressure on Assad.The Bush-Obama agenda marches on.

This post originally appeared on The American Interest.