Things sure aren’t looking too good in Egypt these days. I can’t say I’m terribly surprised by this. For decades, the true character of its society lay latent behind the veil of a dictator friendly to our interests, who mouthed words we like to hear about moving toward a more open, secular society. This never really happens under unrepresentative governments, of course. What happens instead is that the people seethe and their grievances build, and they’re drawn to well-organized, well-financed radical groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Plenty of “realists” in Washington no doubt appreciated Mubarak for his talent to project an image of stability, but anyone with some common sense and minimal experience traveling in that region would know that this not reality; it was a fragile facade. My guess is that the true national character of Egypt’s Muslim majority will be revealed in a year, and will be within a standard deviation of what Iran was in 1979. It will show a disturbing curiosity about nuclear weapons, its Coptic minority will begin to emigrate, its long-standing ties with the United States will begin to dissolve, and its borders near Gaza and Israel will be remilitarized.
To the extent our own government’s policies contributed to this outcome, that contribution was probably decades in the making. After the overthrow of Mubarak, the Obama Administration had a narrow window to support the democratic opposition and help it achieve a strong position in the elections we’ve just seen. I don’t know what the administration did in furtherance of that outcome or whether anything it did would have mattered anyway, so without more evidence, I can’t see a basis to blame the current President for that outcome. Our firewall now should be an insistence on the preservation of enough democratic structures so that when the Brotherhood fails to keep all of its promises — whether articulated, imagined, or projected — a better alternative will have a chance to emerge.
A revolution in this early phase can’t be stopped by external pressure; it has to run its course and have a chance to show its hideous face. Iraq’s Sunni Triangle was a good example of this, one that played out with exceptional speed, because of Al Qaeda’s exceptional brutality toward the local Iraqis. It will take longer in the case of the Brotherhood. Here and there, we will have opportunities to catalyze incremental advances, or to deter incremental regressions, in the Egypt’s cultural, political, or diplomatic character. I hope whoever occupies the White House in a few years is smart enough to seize them.
It’s interesting that when the Arab Spring broke out, plenty of foreign observers had higher expectations for Egypt than for Libya, including me. Egypt has a sophisticated, urbane class that originally led the revolution, but that class was hardly heard when the votes came in. Libya has been poor, ignorant, and isolated for years. Could its people build the kind of government we would recognize as democracy? I doubt it, but it’s reasonable to believe they can make significant improvements over their national character under Qaddafy and evolve, slowly, in that direction.
Western nations that helped the Libyan rebels overthrow him have won genuine affection from its new government, and large segments of the Libyan people. That’s more than we can say about Egypt. In Libya, the relatively minimal cost of NATO intervention helped secure an influential role in shaping its new government in a favorable direction. A lot of people on the far left will be disgusted by this, but Libya’s oil also matters, because our cars — Volvos included — run on it, and because Libya’s underperforming oil fields will eventually make its government wealthy enough to spend its oil money in the same ways that Iran has, or in the ways that North Korea has spent much less. Yes, there have been some internecine blue-on-blue scraps and even one small outbreak by pro-Qaddafy forces, but overall, the situation in Libya today is as good as we were reasonably entitled to expect. The leaders of NATO and President Obama deserve credit for this. Had they not intervened, the result would have been worse than Srebrenica, but not as bad as Rwanda. I don’t doubt that in such an event, Michelle Bachmann would still have been the President’s worst critic.
If anything, the national character of Syria is even more filled with suppressed rage than it is in Egypt. After all, the Assad family’s legacy has been decades of poverty, oppression, torture, massacres, sectarian oligarchy, and the conjuring of pathological hatred for a neighbor that has repeatedly inflicted humiliating defeats on the Syrian Army. Civil war has now come to all of Syria’s largest cities except Alleppo, but including the suburbs of the capital. I don’t see how the regime can survive over the long term. The longer the term, however, the more the opposition will coalesce around those who have no compunctions about how they use deadly force, and the more it will radicalize.
That is why, even if you reject all of the arguments Charles Krauthammer makes here, it is in our national interest to quickly build a strong operational relationship with receptive, friendly, and deserving elements of the Syrian opposition. If this means arming them, so be it. The Syrian people, like the Libyans and the Egyptians, will remember who their friends were in the time of their greatest need. So, one day, will the North Koreans and yes, the Chinese, too. It may not be realistic to believe that any Middle Eastern nation will become a flourishing, pro-Western democracy within the next five years, but it is realistic to believe that one can evolve, if given the space to grow. Our immediate objective should be to cultivate a good enough relationship with Syria’s future leaders and its people that, with good diplomacy, we can help protect that space.
Or we can watch Syria become what Lebanon became in the 1970’s. As murky and unpredictable as things are in Libya today, isn’t its outcome still much better than that?