Catastrophe by Consensus

Catastrophe by Consensus

How neocons and Obama liberals have created catastrophe by consensus in the Middle East

[Note: Tablet changed my proposed headline to "Dumb and Dumber," which carries a connotation I did not intend]

By David P. Goldman|May 20, 2013 12:00 AM|3comments

Egyptian protesters, seen through a flag, march toward Cairo’s landmark Tahrir square during a demonstration against President Mohammed Morsi on May 17, 2013. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images)

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I published this essay today at Tablet magazine:

Errors by the party in power can get America into trouble; real catastrophes require consensus.

Rarely have both parties been as unanimous about a development overseas as they have in their shared enthusiasm for the so-called Arab Spring during the first months of 2011. Republicans vied with the Obama Administration in their zeal for the ouster of Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak and in championing the subsequent NATO intervention against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Both parties saw themselves as having been vindicated by events. The Obama Administration saw its actions as proof that soft power in pursuit of humanitarian goals offered a new paradigm for foreign-policy success. And the Republican establishment saw a vindication of the Bush freedom agenda.

“Revolutions are sweeping the Middle East and everyone is a convert to George W. Bush’s freedom agenda,” Charles Krauthammer observed in February 2011. “Now that revolution has spread from Tunisia to Oman,” Krauthammer added, “the [Obama] administration is rushing to keep up with the new dispensation, repeating the fundamental tenet of the Bush Doctrine that Arabs are no exception to the universal thirst for dignity and freedom.” And William Kristol exulted, “Helping the Arab Spring through to fruition might contribute to an American Spring, one of renewed pride in our country and confidence in the cause of liberty.”

They were all wrong. Just two years later, the foreign-policy establishment has fractured in the face of a Syrian civil war that threatens to metastasize into neighboring Iraq and Lebanon and an economic collapse in Egypt that has brought the largest Arab country to the brink of state failure. Some Republican leaders, including Sen. John McCain and Weekly Standard editor Kristol, demand American military intervention to support Syria’s Sunni rebels. But Daniel Pipes, the dean of conservative Middle East analysts, wrote on April 11 that “Western governments should support the malign dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad,” because “Western powers should guide enemies to stalemate by helping whichever side is losing, so as to prolong their conflict.” If Assad appears to be winning, he added later, we should support the rebels. The respected strategist Edward Luttwak contends that America should “leave bad enough alone” in Syria and turn its attention away from the Middle East—to Asia. The Obama Administration meanwhile is waffling about what might constitute a “red line” for intervention and what form such intervention might take.

The once-happy bipartisan consensus has now shrunk to the common observation that all the available choices are bad. It could get much worse. Western efforts have failed to foster a unified leadership among the Syrian rebels, and jihadi extremists appear to be in control of the Free Syrian Army inside Syria. Syria’s war is “creating the conditions for a renewed conflict, dangerous and complex, to explode in Iraq. If Iraq is not shielded rapidly and properly, it will definitely slip into the Syrian quagmire,” warns Arab League Ambassador Nassif Hitti. Iraq leaders are talking of civil war and eventual partition. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, meanwhile, warned on May 1, “Syria has real friends in the region, and the world will not let Syria fall into the hands of America, Israel or takfiri [radical islamist] groups,” threatening in effect to turn the civil war into a regional conflict that has the potential to destabilize Turkey. And the gravest risk to the region remains the likelihood that “inherent weaknesses of state and society in Egypt reach a point where the country’s political, social and economic systems no longer function,” as Gamal Abuel Hassan wrote on May 28. Libya is fracturing, and the terrorists responsible for the September 2012 Benghazi attack are operating freely.

This is a tragic outcome, in the strict sense of the term, for it is hard to imagine how it could have turned out otherwise.

The whole essay is available here.