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Belmont Club

An Uncertain Hour

August 30th, 2012 - 3:04 am

With the Assad regime in Damascus slowly but surely deflating James Linville asks what happens next, citing an article by Telegraph journalist Con Coughlin.  Coughlin refers  to “western intelligence officials” who claim that the Ayatollah Khamenei now accepts that Assad’s fall may be inevitable and has ordered a retaliatory plan drawn up. “The report, which was personally commissioned by Mr Khamenei, concluded … Iran ‘cannot be passive’ to the new threats posed to its national security, and warns that Western support for Syrian opposition groups was placing Iran’s “resistance alliance” in jeopardy, and could seriously disrupt Iran’s access to Hizbollah in Lebanon.”

But Khamenei’s threat seems hollow on the face of things. Iran’s unconventional warfare reach is limited. It’s conventional miltary power, while dangerous, is nowhere close America’s. What Iran might be able to export — but which the Syrian civil war is manufacturing faster than the Revolutionary Guard — is chaos.  Spengler, writing in the Asia Times, thinks chaos is the leading ideology in the Arab Spring.  Contrary to the conventional wisdom that all leaders want security and stability Spengler thinks that Morsi sees an opportunity in trouble. And why not? With Egypt throwing away every chance to pull itself out of an economic hole it may be rational to believe that Mori thinks chaos is an opportunity.

American analysts had assumed that Egypt’s massive need for external aid would keep Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood on Washington’s leash. On the contrary, the Brotherhood indicated its intent to benefit from economic chaos months ago, as I wrote in this space last April (see Muslim Brotherhood chooses chaos, Asia Times Online, April 11, 2012). Now the gravity of the situation is beginning to sink in.

“Just two months after coming to power, Morsi is pursuing a rapprochement with Tehran and articulating a newfound ambition to jettison billions in US foreign assistance dollars and financing from Western financial institutions,” wrote David Schenker and Christina Lin in the April 24 Los Angeles Times.

The State Department may have forgotten the famous words of Alfred Pennyworth, Batman’s butler. “Some people just want to watch the world burn.”

But do they have enough matches? Hanin Ghadar, writing in the New York Times, says that Asad and Iran have been trying to set fire to the region for some time. The malice is there, but the means are lacking. “The Syrian government has tried many times to transfer its crisis to Lebanon, but it has failed to cause a real explosion that would lead to another Lebanese civil war.”

Hezbollah’s growing impotence was demonstrated when the Lebanese government arrested a man widely known as the Mouth of Assad in Lebanon: “Bashar al-Assad’s friend and adviser, the former Lebanese information minister Michel Samaha.” Instead of exerting pressure for his release Hezbollah remained sulkily quiescent. Why? Because while “Mr. Assad may not yet realize that he is a dead man walking, but Hezbollah does”. They didn’t want to be part of Samaha’s pyre just then. But as James Linville notes, it’s a matter of time. The fall of a Middle Eastern dictator doesn’t necessarily mean the end of dictatorship, it often just signifies the mere replacement of one thug by another. “The thug is dead, long live the thug.”

If the good news is that Assad is doomed; the bad news is this in no wise implies that liberty is alive. An Egypt now freed from the clutches of Mubarak can look forward to the depredations of the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s on the way, in Spengler’s words, to being “North Korea on the Nile” where nothing is for sale except trouble.

Nobody can see a way to write a happy ending to this story. Lee Smith writes that the principal difference between the Romney and Obama foreign policies is that Romney isn’t obstinately obstructive.  The former Governor sees no downside to letting Israel try to save itself while the Obama administration sees no downside to doing nothing.

During Romney’s trip to Israel last month, campaign adviser Dan Senor said: “If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability, the governor would respect that decision.” …

The Obama Administration says its policy is not to deter and contain an Iranian nuclear weapons program but to prevent it. But that’s just what they’re saying. What they believe surely must be something else. If the United States was able to contain and deter the Soviets, we can certainly do the same with a crummy little third-world regime like Iran’s. Or perhaps American policymakers just see it like this: If we take military action against Iran, the likeliest scenario is a region-wide war and an Iranian terror campaign against the United States and its allies, especially Israel. If we do nothing, the worst-case scenario is that emboldened Iranian action leads to a region-wide war and global terror. Common sense tells you that if someone believes he will get the same results by doing nothing and doing something, then he will choose the path of least resistance, by doing nothing.

In revolutionary times there is no stable condition into which failing states can collapse. In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the obvious place to fall was toward Western liberal democracy. That was the ‘natural state’. It was tendency so pronounced that some writers declared that the End of History had come. The ‘natural’ resting place  is signally lacking in the Middle East.  Thus there are no color revolutions in the region, just turmoil with the trappings of it. The reason there are no waypoints is that the international framework which formerly provided the navigation is itself in crisis.

The topology of history is going through one its periodic renewals. James V. DeLong points out there is actually an upheaval at the very center of the world system: a crisis of legitimacy in the United States. Apart from its particulars it is no different from the storms now buffeting Europe and the international financial system. DeLong writes:

Across many decades, my mind’s eye sees Professor Samuel Beer pacing the lecture hall stage at Harvard, talking about the accession of Henry II to the throne of England in 1154 and the end of 20 years of anarchy …

Throughout the year, the class time travels to societies in crisis over legitimacy: From the England of Henry II to its long revolution of 1640 to 1688 to the American Revolution in 1776, the French and Russian Revolutions of 1789 and 1917, and Weimar Germany as Hitler comes to power in 1933.

In each instance, a government has forfeited its claim to obedience and loyalty—at least in the view of a significant portion of its subjects—and has broken down. The questions are: Why? And what comes next?

The ‘why’ is easier to answer than ‘what comes next’. In DeLong’s analysis America — and by extension the West — has been destabilized by the ‘breakout’ of government. The original grand bargain underlying America was that government should never become so big that one faction could use it to impose its will upon the others. Like Lebanon or Syria, no sect should become so powerful that it could threaten the others. Once that balance had been upset there was no easy way back.

It has taken some time, but the result has been predictable. Once the overall principle was broken, the system turned into a chaotic war in which interests fight for pieces of power and control. … The political culture has evolved to the point where anyone who declines to push for special favors is regarded as a fool, and systemic corruption is accepted as the normal and inevitable way of doing political business …

All the talk of the government needing power to solve national problems or to fix the healthcare system, the housing market, the financial world, or anything else is only blather to obscure the determination of the special interests to gain and defend their turf. Yet still they come, fighting their way to the trough, arguing that more than 60 percent of GDP is not enough and that the “welfare state” requires still more if it is to achieve cosmic justice.

Gallup and Rasmussen are telling us that the Founders were right to posit that a breakdown of the limits of government would cause a breakdown of consent. In response to the question of whether the current government has the consent of the governed, only 22 percent of likely voters say “yes.” The partisan divide is marked; Democrats split evenly, but only 8 percent of Republicans say yes. These are scary numbers, particularly when one considers that many of the “no consent” Democrats are probably on the left, denying the legitimacy of a government that does not do more for them. Also scary is that the political establishments of both parties seem oblivious.

So Beer’s time-traveling students would have little trouble deciding that the United States has a legitimacy crisis. They could produce competent term papers on how it arose. The big question, of course, is what happens next. That is indeterminable. Unstable political arrangements often continue for a long time, until some crisis pushes them over the edge. France faced severe fiscal problems in 1789, and Russia’s tsars might still be with us if they had avoided the strains of World War I. So the United States might be pushed into full-blown chaos only by serious fiscal dysfunction or some national security disaster. Unfortunately, neither of these possibilities appears remote.

In time a new equilibrium will be found. A new Grand Bargain will be reached. But in the meantime the direct consequence of the crisis in the West is that it has made it impossible for it to reimpose order in the East. Whereas in 1989 nearly every former Soviet bloc country wanted to become like the West, today not even the West wants to be like the West. The EU is probably done for. Paul Ryan at the Republican national convention pledged to work toward limiting the expenditures of Federal Government to 20% of the economic output.

It will be as easy to contain government as to contain Iran. DeLong writes that he can’t see a clear path out of the woods. All history teaches that there are likely to be a lot of brambles along the way.

The urgent question is how to find a road back to stability and consent without going through a crisis and consequent upheaval. This is a mystery, since the set of societies that have faced and surmounted legitimacy crises without turmoil is a limited one. In later years, Beer added to his syllabus the topic of the great reform acts in England during the 19th century, but that example seems almost unique. Most societies must endure considerable pain.

That sad observation applies especially to the drama in the Middle East. There’s no resting place, no consensus model for societies in aftermath of upheaval unless one counts the theocratic prescriptions of the Saudis or the Ayatollahs. But the sad prospect also applies to the West which has been betrayed by the pat answers of the last twenty years. The only way to find a new stability is to start by realizing we are at the beginning of a period of discontents.


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