Putin Gets It and We Don't
Middle East politics amounts to managing the decline of a failed culture. Nothing expresses Arab failure more vividly than Egypt, a banana republic without the bananas, now living on a $14 billion or so annual subsidy from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. With 70% of its population living in agricultural areas, it imports half its food, and would starve if not for the Saudi check. '
Egypt is beyond the point of no return economically, and American foreign policy is beyond the point of no return intellectually. Americans of both parties--Obama and Kerry on one side, and Sens. McCain and Graham along with the Weekly Standard on the other--believed that by waving the magic wand of democracy over this cataclysmically failed state, all would be well. I characterized this consensus as "Dumb and Dumber" earlier this year.
The outcome, of course, is that Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov turned up in Cairo this week to hear his Egyptian counterpart declare that America's erstwhile Arab ally wants to restore Russian-Egyptian relations to their level during the Soviet era--when Egypt was an enemy. As the Jerusalem Post summed up the mess:
The more persistent the denials, the clearer it is that a marked shift is taking place in international ties that until recently bound the world’s single superpower with the most populous Arab state. The Russian ministerial visits were preceded by a visit by the chief of Russian intelligence and by Russian naval vessels.
More important, the visits by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu involve a major sale to Egypt of sophisticated Russian military hardware – clearly a counter move to the American halting of weapons supplies.
The Egyptians are essentially saying that they can shop elsewhere and not have to shell out cash. According to reliable reports, another exasperated American ally, Saudi Arabia, is footing the bill for this transaction to the tune of $4b. The Russians may receive additional compensation in the form of access for their navy to port facilities on the Mediterranean.
Like it or not, this smacks of a return – if not fully in substance then at least in appearance – to the days of the Cold War when Egypt enjoyed unstinting Soviet support, enabling Moscow and Cairo to thumb their noses at Washington.
Vladimir Putin gets it, and we don't. He backs the Assad regime in Syria against Saudi-supported rebels. He is cracking down ruthlessly on Muslim terrorists in the Russian Caucasus, using Stalin-era forms of collective punishment. Nonetheless Riyadh is footing a $4 billion bill for Egypt to buy Russian arms.
The Saudi monarchy is fighting for survival, against Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood organized on the model of 20th-century totalitarian parties, and against Iran. Iran is fighting for survival; after its fertility rate fell from 7 children per female in 1979 to just 1.7 today, today's youth bulge will turn into an unsupportable elderly dependent ratio. Egypt is fighting to pay the grocer's bill every day. It is not within America's or anyone's power to reverse this decline. Putin understands this and exploits their struggle for survival. I have advocated a Richelovian foreign policy on behalf of American interests; now we watch helplessly as Russia pursues such a policy in its own interest. Fair is fair: Putin has more brains and insight than anyone in the American foreign policy establishment, and he is winning by laps rather than lengths. I have no objection to the ritual denunciations of Russia in the conservative media, but a bit of reflection on why Russia runs circles around us might also be in order.
Last month I heard George W. Bush address a large Jewish gathering. He complained about the growing isolationist mood in America. Does it occur to him, or to the punditeska that egged on his "freedom agenda," that the source of isolationism is the utter failure of our utopian efforts in the Middle East and revulsion at their human and economic costs?