Belmont Club

In Reverse


The Strategy Page reports that the Syrian security services have been shaken by 20,000 desertions in the military.  According to their sources, Damascus is now relying on the hard-core secret police and foreign auxiliaries like the Hezbollah to protect the regime. Yet despite sustaining average losses of 100 per week the opposition still shows no signs of slowing down.  The Assads are digging in, replacing provincial officials who show signs of weakness and shooting deserters who try to cross the border.

With the temperature rising, Canada advised its nationals to leave Syria.  Britain has threatened to expel Syrian diplomats from the UK unless they desist from harassing anti-Assad activists based there.  The US has just pulled out its ambassador from Damascus over fears for his “personal safety”.

Ironically, Ambassador Ford had only recently arrived in Damascus as “Washington, seeking to convince Assad to scale back an alliance with U.S. arch-foe Iran and backing for militant groups, acted to improve relations with Damascus after President Barack Obama took office in 2009. Obama sent Ford to Damascus in January after being appointed to the post temporarily to fill a diplomatic vacuum prevailing since Washington withdrew its ambassador in 2005.”

Lebanon, always sensitive to developments inside Syria, has seen Hezbollah’s popularity decline according to Hanin Ghaddar, as it tries to enforce the Assad writ even on the Lebanese borders with Israel.

“Before 2000, the Israeli army occupied my village. When Hezbollah liberated it, we celebrated and were very thankful. Today, I cannot buy a beer or criticize Assad publically in my village. I do not feel it is liberated. It is still occupied, but now by Iranian arms. Is there a real difference?”

The problem that appears to face Washington is whether the successor regimes to the crumbling dictatorships of the Middle East will be any friendlier to America than their predecessors. In Libya, the anti-Khadaffy rebels are “fighting over plunder and power”. “Western and Moslem nations who supported the NTC are fearful that better organized and more fanatic Islamic radical factions will take over the government, and establish another dictatorship, this time one based just on religion, not one man’s megalomania.”

Because many countries in the region require foreign manpower to keep even the most essential services running, chaos and lawlessness unless curbed, will lead to economic collapse. Unless the State Department figures out a way to work with whoever seizes power things will rapidly go downhill.

For example, in Libya even the wounded remain uncared for without enough foreigners to staff the hospitals. “Now the NTC finds itself with a big shortage of skilled managers and techies. Nothing happens if you give orders and there’s no one able to carry them out. Just getting electricity and water supply working again has been difficult. There’s an even more poignant problem with thousands of wounded NTC fighters, who have not been able to get the medical care they need.” The Washington Post reports that Syria needs American software and hardware to even censor its Internet.

But the need to act in the face of the growing restiveness in the region is driving Washington policymakers to consider strange bedfellows. Doyle McManus at the LA Times recalls attending a conference during which American officials were sizing up Islamist parties as potential allies.

At a conference two years ago, I sat in on a meeting between U.S. officials and young Islamist politicians from Tunisia, Jordan and other countries in the Middle East. The Islamists wanted to know: Would the Americans allow them to run in free elections, even if it meant they might come to power? The Americans turned the question back at them: Would the Islamists, if they won, allow free and democratic elections, even if it might mean losing power? …

At that conference, I sat next to the grand old man of Egypt’s secular democrats, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a veteran of Cairo politics — and of Hosni Mubarak’s prisons. He favored a clear division between mosque and state, but he had no illusions.

“A lot of [the Islamists] aren’t democrats at heart,” he said. “But you cannot get rid of these people. You have to deal with them.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the dilemma facing the U.S. and anyone else who worries that the Arab world’s Islamists could turn out to be like the Muslim revolutionaries who seized control in Iran 32 years ago — authoritarian, hostile and democratic only in name.

That prospect is no longer hypothetical now that Islamists have claimed a win in Tunisia’s Arab Spring vote. Since Tunisia was among the least Islamized states undergoing upheaval, the results may foreshadow results in Egypt and beyond.

“This is an historic moment,” said Zeinab Omri, a young woman in a hijab, or Islamic head scarf, who was outside the Ennahda headquarters when party officials claimed victory. “No one can doubt this result. This result shows very clearly that the Tunisian people is a people attached to its Islamic identity,” she said.

McManus’ anecdote brings to a point one fundamental facet of the Arab Spring. The uprisings not only spell the end of the old-line dictators, but they bring to a close an era of Western diplomacy with them. Nowhere is the switch plainer than in Syria. No sooner had Ambassador Ford been sent to mend fences with the Assads, in line with President Obama’s vision of grand bargains, then he found himself supporting Assad’s internal enemies.  The man sent to Damascus to befriend the Assads now finds himself departing for fear of his “personal safety”. The Arab Spring is common graveyard of both the region’s strongmen and decades of State Department policy. To use a more current practice in mortuary science, both are in the same meat locker.

The arrival at the crossroads comes at a time of great opportunity for the United States. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Daily Telegraph noted, America has arrived by a twist of fate at what may prove to be an even more dominant role in the world. The European implosion, coming on the heels of the Soviet collapse, is now being succeeded by an American accession to energy dominance coming as a result of new oil extraction technology. The result is that despite the mistakes in Washington DC, America finds itself at the top of a heap of nations which have managed to outblunder it.

The American phoenix is slowly rising again. Within five years or so, the US will be well on its way to self-sufficiency in fuel and energy. Manufacturing will have closed the labour gap with China in a clutch of key industries. The current account might even be in surplus. …

It is almost the only economic power with a fertility rate above 2.0 – and therefore the ability to outgrow debt – in sharp contrast to the demographic decay awaiting Japan, China, Korea, Germany, Italy, and Russia. …

The 21st Century may be American after all, just like the last.

Given that rising power, the United States might in the position to risk of going full speed down the regime change road. If, after all, the Islamists prove recalcitrant, then a newly-muscular America will have the muscle to show them what’s what. Or perhaps it might simply decide that the region is no longer critical after all; that the Palestinian state question has become moot; and that the best policy to buy a very large supply of popcorn and watch unfolding events from a distance.

If Evans-Pritchard is right, then the Obama administration must even now be in a state of mental confusion. It will have been wrong on two of its major 2008 policy assumptions: maybe regime change, not grand bargains lie in the future of the Middle East and second, perhaps America was not in long term decline, but on the contrary, in strategic ascent.

The thrashings of the State Department in the Middle are merely the shudders of its policy being thrown forcibly into reverse. But if the Obama administration is being forced to come to accept the ruin of its foreign policy assumptions, it has still not recognized the collapse of its domestic economic assumptions. It continues to behave as if the European welfare model were the wave of the future instead of a relic of the past. It continues to conduct itself as if America could not develop its energy resources. The Obama administration has not yet shoved the domestic political gearbox into reverse. On the day its representatives meet with Tea Party representatives with the same openness that it has shown Islamists then the about-face will be general.

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $3.99, print $9.99
Tip Jar or Subscribe for $5