The best is the enemy of the good, Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. liked to say. The best option for the Muslim states of the Middle East and Western and Central Asia is liberal democracy. That, I have argued for years, is unattainable. For years, the second-best option was a dictatorship friendly to American interests. That option collapsed with the Tunisia uprising a year ago, when it became clear that the dictatorships could not even reward subservience with nutritional security (as I wrote last Feb. 2 under the title, “Food and Failed Arab States“). Sixty years of Nasserite dictatorship left Egypt with 45% illiteracy, unemployed and unemployable youth, and 50% dependency on food imports.
Now the options in Egypt appear to be stable rule by the Muslim Brotherhood, or disintegration. Which benefits American interests more?
The options in Syria are similar: continuing civil war between Muslim Brotherhood-led Sunnis and the Alawite Assad regime. Which do we prefer — a stable ally of Iran, or chaos?
The options in Iraq may come down to a pro-Iranian Shi’ite dictatorship, or a permanent multi-sided ethnic and sectarian civil war. I forecast this outcome (“General Petraeus’ Thirty Years War”) after the United States funded and armed the Sunni Awakening. Again, which is better for the United States: a stable Iranian ally, or perpetual civil war? Outside of the Salafist theme park known as Saudi Arabia, where oil revenues sustain a caricature of traditional society, and a couple of other oil states, that is the question to be asked from North Africa to Afghanistan.
The best has been the enemy of the good throughout. Pursuing the fantasy of a “best” option — stable and democratic Muslim states — has cost us too much blood and treasure, and above all, far too much in terms of the morale of the American public. It does not seem to me wise to make too big an issue of who lost Iraq. Certainly Obama’s pullout of American troops from Iraq was unfortunate, ill-advised and ill-timed — we should have insisted on some forces in reinforced fire-bases especially in proximity to the Iranian border — but by and large Obama continued what Bush began. I warned in April 2008 that:
it was illusory to believe that the US was capable of creating a stable to regime to replace [Saddam]. To prevail in the regime meant an unending series of small interventions and unending chaos in the region, with hideous humanitarian consequences. Cardinal Richelieu had the stomach to pursue such a policy towards the German empire during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648, but not Bush. Yet a Richelovian policy towards the Middle East, horrible as it would be, is the inevitable consequence of American interventionism.
Americans are not cold enough to initiate a Richelovian campaign of destabilization. But whether we like it or not, a general destabilization has overwhelmed North Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Central Asia. We did not seek it. We did our best to prevent it. Our hands are clean. Unlike the Reagan administration, which did its best to prolong the Iran-Iraq War with its million casualties, the Bush administration tried to avoid such conflicts. Now that we are stuck with humanitarian catastrophes of biblical proportions, we had better make the best use of them. Never let a crisis go to waste, as somebody said during his 15 minutes of fame.
American conservative intellectuals should put aside their Thucydides and study the Thirty Years War instead. We are too enamored of the opposition of “democratic” Athens against “oligarchical” Sparta (so much that we ignore Aristophanes’ accusation against Athens’ imperial party, namely that it looted the wealth of Athens’ allies to provide subsidized food to Pericles’ mob). The analogies to be drawn between America’s strategic situation today and the Peloponnesian War are few; those with the Thirty Years War, much closer to our own times, are strong. It is dreary stuff; there is no-one to root for, no white hats or black hats, just a mass of misdeeds that killed off about two-fifths of the people of Central Europe between 1618 and 1648. The best book on the intelligence operations of the French state remains out of print. The handful of essays I have written on the subject rank at rock bottom in readership.
Like it or not, circumstances will force us to think this way. Might as well get a head start.