Belmont Club

The New Normal

There’s trouble in the Middle East. Not that there wasn’t always. But maybe this time it is different.

Libyan protesters lash out at new ‘monster’ in power, writes the Washington Times. “Many Libyans also are worried that the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that was banned by Gadhafi, is trying to hijack the country. The transitional government and local councils are packed with Islamists who wield immense power, they say.”

In Egypt, Signs of Accord Between Military Council and Islamists, according to the New York Times, which calls it good news. “Their accord seems to have reassured Western diplomats that Egypt is moving toward a more democratic government. But the growing realization that the deal may have already been struck without public debate is evoking a mix of resignation, resentment and relief from liberals and human rights advocates.”

Rising Strife Threatens Tenuous Iraqi Stability, adds another article from the NYT. “But while there remains hope that Iraqis can still unite, the country is far from the ‘sovereign, stable and self-reliant’ place President Obama described it as last month.” Al-Qaeda is claiming victory.

“The United States withdrew rapidly after being repeatedly attacked by our mujahedeen in order to save their military from a quagmire,” Al Qaeda in Iraq said in a recent posting on its Web site. “The American military withdrawal is a defeat in every sense of the word, but the war is not over because Iran is trying to establish a Shiite buffer zone in Iraq and extend its Islamic revolution to Medina and Mecca,” it said, referring to Muslim holy sites in Saudi Arabia.

Jackson Diehl at the Washington Post says Rick Perry’s belief that Islamic terrorist influence in the Middle East is rising in Turkey stems from a lack of understanding. Diehl writes,”the reality is that, like it or not, ‘Islamist-oriented’ governments are about to become the new normal in a region dominated for decades by secular autocrats and pro-American generals.”

So the crude bias about Muslim movements that is baked into the worldview of many U.S. conservatives — that they are inevitably fundamentalist, anti-democratic, anti-Israel and anti-American, if not explicitly “terrorist” — has become a serious liability. If heeded, it will make it impossible for this administration and future ones to navigate the region’s new politics and preserve crucial alliances.

Some Islamic movements may turn out like Hamas and Hezbollah — implacably hostile. But others, like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, are likely to weave through an ambiguous middle ground, trying to balance the need for Western investment and the secular aspirations of their populations with their religious ideology. The right way to respond to them is to be nimble: tolerate some turbulence, roll with some punches, push back against others and keep pressing leaders to stick to democratic principles.

In other words the best way forward is to turn necessity into a virtue.  Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute writes that President Obama’s basic foreign policy can be summarized in one phrase: “to the rear, march”. So grinning and bearing it is about all that anyone can do.

Not that one kind of authoritarianism is much different from the other. The degree to which things are in flux was illustrated by the brief capture by Khadaffy loyalists of the town of Bani Walid. Suddenly some are nostalgic for the Duck.

But the new Libyan government denied any deep political motivation, claiming the fighting in the town was really a dispute over money owed for fighting or suffering in the last rebellion. “Monday’s firefight follows an outburst of opposition to the ruling National Transitional Council in the eastern city of Benghazi last week that prompted its chairman, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, to warn of possible ‘civil war’ in post-conflict Libya.”

Perhaps the lack of money and political unrest are all different aspects of the same thing. The New York Times reports that Egypt, already broke under Mubarak, is now even more broke.

After a year of unending turmoil and military rule, Egypt faces an acute financial crisis that could undermine its political transition and pose a defining challenge to Islamists now coming to power.

With mounting debts, negligible economic growth and dwindling foreign reserves, the military rulers and the new Islamist-led Parliament now confront some difficult choices, beginning with an all but inevitable further devaluation of Egypt’s currency that could send the prices of food and other goods soaring.

The government may also soon be forced to overhaul the vast system of energy subsidies that now account for a fifth of government spending. Increases in food prices and reductions of subsidies have provoked riots here in the past.

Part of the difficulty, according to Spengler, is that both European and Islamic civilizations are going bust simultaneously. While Islamic societies never produced much of anything in modern times except oil the difference is that now even their customers are going under, literally exterminating their own societies with suicidal demographic and economic policies.

The European environmentalist who wants to shrink the world’s population to reduce carbon emissions will spend her declining years in misery, for there will not be enough Europeans alive a generation from now to pay for her pension and medical care. For the first time in world history, the birth rate of the whole developed world is well below replacement, and a significant part of it has passed the demographic point of no return.

But Islamic society is even more fragile. As Muslim fertility shrinks at a rate demographers have never seen before, it is converging on Europe’s catastrophically low fertility as if in time-lapse photography. The average 30-year-old Iranian woman comes from a family of six children, but she will bear only one or two children during her lifetime. Turkey and Algeria are just behind Iran on the way down, and most of the other Muslim countries are catching up quickly. By the middle of this century, the belt of Muslim countries from Morocco to Iran will become as gray as depopulating Europe. The Islamic world will have the same proportion of dependent elderly as the industrial countries – but one-tenth the productivity. A time bomb that cannot be defused is ticking in the Muslim world.

Tick-tock. Tick-tock: the “new normal”. If so, then business as usual is likely to be turmoil, deprivation and despair. And it will catch the Washington elites, once again, by surprise. It may even surprise Diehl.

The great intellectual failing of the Obama administration has been its tendency to see Europe and to some extent the Middle East as harbingers of a “fair” future rather than as canaries in a coal mine; to confuse danger with opportunity and conflate its PR operations with leadership. It wants to be like what is dying rather than countenance a life that is not to its ideological liking.  Or perhaps it is calculation. After all, if there is no “long run” and the administration knows there is no future at all, then short-term optimization is actually a viable strategy. Spengler observes:

A swindler who has no expectation of encountering his victim again will take what he can and run; a merchant who wants repeat customers will act honestly as a matter of self-interest. By the same token, the game theorists contends, nations learn that it is in their interest to act as responsible members of the world community, for the long-run advantages of good behavior outweigh the passing benefits of predation.

Why not take what you can and run?

It can be argued that the administration by predicating its policy on short term gain and a fantasy future, is really acting as if  that a real future were no longer possible at all.  And therefore they are gittin’ while the gittin’s good. But eventually the word will get out. Once Hope and Change vanishes, it won’t  degrade gradually, as any genuinely sound effort would adjust its goals when met with difficulty, but it will collapse utterly, in the manner of a bubble burst.


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