President Barack Obama, in criticizing Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s conquest of the Crimean Peninsula, described Putin as standing “on the wrong side of history.” This curious and arresting phrase has become a frequent cliché among western liberals.
It is testimony to their self-confidence, and to their belief that they have accurately read the deeper currents and inevitable direction of human affairs. These, in the view of the president and his supporters, point inexorably toward greater cooperation between peoples; a decline in attachment to particularist ethnic, national or religious histories; and a decline in the use of force to settle disputes between states.
The unspoken assumption behind all this, of course, is that being on the right side of history also means accepting the unmatched dominance of the U.S. in global affairs, and in turn the unchallengeable domination of the U.S. by people supporting the particular progressive world view of the president and his supporters.
That is, Obama and his supporters use the word “history” to refer to themselves.
The problem with all this is that in the last five years, many players on the world stage have learned that if “history” and “Obama” are synonyms, being on the wrong side of Obama is a not particularly uncomfortable or worrying place to be. So the threat of it has rather less impact than the president might hope or assume.
This is not a marginal point. Rather, it is the key factor defining the direction of strategic affairs globally, and in the Middle East in particular.
Let’s examine the record:
In the Middle East, declining respect for being on the wrong side of the United States is the single factor which underlies the direction of events in the key conflict zones of the region.
In Egypt, the current de facto administration of General Abd al Fattah al-Sisi came into being on July 3, 2013, as a result of a military coup against a U.S.-supported Muslim Brotherhood government. Sisi as of now appears to command immense popularity among the Egyptian population.
He has paid no apparent price for directly challenging the will of the U.S. administration. He is likely to win the Egyptian presidency this year and to set in motion another long period of de facto military rule in Egypt. He is also in the process of reviving Cairo’s relations with Russia.
In Syria, an anti-American dictatorship is holding its ground, despite ostensible U.S. support for its overthrow, and despite the dictator Assad’s responsibility for the deaths of over 140,000 of his countrymen over the last three years. Iranian and Russian aid to the Assad regime have proved decisive. Bashar Assad was smart enough to stick with allies who would stick by him.