Wednesday, June 19, 2013

As the Middle East Disintegrates

Those who have followed the turmoil in the Middle East through the lens offered by Tom Friedman are borderline clueless.

On this blog we have kept well-informed by reading David Goldman, aka Spengler.

Today, Spengler has a new sobering article on the crises in Egypt and Syria:

Syria and Egypt are dying. They were dying before the Syrian civil war broke out and before the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Cairo. Syria has an insoluble civil war and Egypt has an insoluble crisis because they are dying. They are dying because they chose not to do what China did: move the better part of a billion people from rural backwardness to a modern urban economy within a generation. Mexico would have died as well, without the option to send its rural poor - fully one-fifth of its population - to the United States. 

Spengler sees nothing good coming out of Egypt:

No-one has proposed a way to find the more than US$20 billion a year that Egypt requires to stay afloat. In June 2011, then French president Nicholas Sarkozy talked about a Group of Eight support program of that order of magnitude. No Western (or Gulf State) government, though, is willing to pour that sort of money down an Egyptian sinkhole.

Egypt remains a pre-modern society, with nearly 50% illiteracy, a 30% rate of consanguineal marriage, a 90% rate of female genital mutilation, and an un- or underemployment rate over 40%. Syria has neither enough oil nor water to maintain the bazaar economy dominated by the Assad family. 

As for the situation in Syria, Spengler believes that arming the rebels will do little more than soothe Western consciences. We should also note, as Reuters reports today, that the anti-Assad rebellion is increasingly controlled by Islamists.

Spengler writes:

Even if the Sunnis could eject the Assad family from Damascus and establish a new government - which I doubt - the best case scenario would be another Egypt: a Muslim Brotherhood government presiding over a collapsed economy and sliding inevitably towards state failure. It is too late even for this kind of arrangement. Equalizing the military position of the two sides will merely increase the body count. The only humane thing to do is to partition the country on the Yugoslav model, but that does not appear to be on the agenda of any government. 

As an addendum, here is Nicholas Thompson’s analysis of Obama’s Syria intervention, on the New Yorker site:

Nonetheless, too much about this intervention seems perilous, uncertain, and imprudent. We are joining a Sunni-Shiite civil war, and on our side we find Al-Nusra, perhaps the strongest rebel faction and an affiliate of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Some of our weapons will likely end up in their hands. Meanwhile, the rebels we support appear to be splitting apart, not pulling together. By joining the fight this way, we take on the risks of a superpower—embassy attacks around the world, hostility, hatred—but enjoy none of the benefits. We are unlikely to win any time soon; it is not even clear what a win would look like. Obama wants to stop the slaughter and remove Assad, but there is no indication of a plan for an endgame, or even a next step—except, it seems, putting off any next step and any escalation. He may have a master plan that he hasn’t told us about. But one doubts it. The President didn’t even announce the news of our engagement; an aide did, which suggests that Obama wants to distance himself from his halfhearted policy.

Thompson is correct to point out that Obama was not facing a choice between arming the rebels and doing nothing:

There were other options. Obama could have continued imposing sanctions and sending non-lethal aid to rebel groups. If the goal is to save lives and give comfort to the victims, we should give further support to the refugee camps. Joining the battle, though, transforms it. Now our weapons will be killing people. We will be tied by blood to one side in a sectarian civil war that seems likely to spread in an unpredictable fashion. We are now part owners of the pain it will cause—in Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere.

We are part owners of a situation that, if we believe Spengler, cannot turn out well.

Call it “leading from behind,” but it seems more like our president is floundering. Clueless Obama is being thrown around by circumstances. It might be better to see him as history’s plaything.


Lastango said...

"It might be better to see him as history’s plaything."

I agree completely; Obama (and the rest of his administration) are being pushed and pulled.

It's helpful to drop back a step to consider, concerning Syria and Egypt, why this is so.

With regard to Syria, I believe the root cause is Team Obama's choice to continue the Bush administration's policy of appeasing Iran. Iran's US-enabled hegemony is how Assad stayed in power in Syria, and why Hezbollah (an Iranian proxy now active in Syria) became so strong in Lebanon.

In Egypt and across North Africa, the Obama administration decided the Muslim radicals would be the ultimate winners, and made a cynical decision to throw their weight behind them. That choice - and the outcomes - recall to mind Jimmy Carter's campaign to undermine the Shah in Iran and bring the Mullahs to power. (It shouldn't surprise anyone that undermining regimes in North Africa in favor of Islamists was well underway during the feckless Bush administration.)

So, the Obama administration is indeed bouncing between pillar and post. But it's largely because of their own, prior choices. They're not simply victims of random events. There are reasons why things are out of control, and much of it traces back to our own past two presidents.

Sam L. said...

The middle east is a tar pit. Except for Israel.