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No Exit: Why the US Can’t Leave the Middle East

America is in a bad mood.

In the midst of the worst economy since the 1970s, we’re on the verge of losing the war in Afghanistan, the longest we’ve ever fought, against stupefyingly primitive foes.

We sort of won the war in Iraq, but it cost billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and Baghdad is still a violent, dysfunctional mess.

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The overhyped Arab Spring has been cancelled in Egypt. Liberating Libya led to the assassination of our ambassador. Syria is disintegrating into total war with bad guys on both sides and the US dithering on the sidelines, worried more about saving face at this point than having any significant effect on the facts on the ground.

A majority of American voters in both parties have had it. They’re just flat-out not interested in spending any more money or lives to help out. Even many foreign policy professionals are fed up. We get blamed for every one of the Middle East’s problems, including those it inflicts on itself. How gratifying it would be just to walk away, dust off our hands, and say you’re on your own.

But we can’t.

 

Actually, in Egypt maybe we can. And maybe we should.

Hosni Mubarak was a terrible leader and a lukewarm ally at best, but until the Egyptian army arrested him in 2011, Cairo had been part of the American-backed security architecture in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean ever since his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, junked Egypt’s alliance with the Soviet Union.

The election of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in the wake of the Arab Spring, though, moved Egypt into the “frenemy” column. It’s still there under the military rule of General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the new head of state in all but name since the army removed Mohamed Morsi.

Sisi is no less hostile to Washington than Morsi was. As Lee Smith put it shortly after the second coup in three years, Egypt’s new jefe “sees the United States as little more than a prop, a rag with which he burnishes his reputation as a strongman, a village mayor puffing his chest and boasting that he is unafraid to stand up to the Americans.” 

Sisi knows his country and what it takes to appeal to the masses. The whole population—left, right, and center—is as hostile toward the United States as it ever was. Never mind that Americans backed the anti-Mubarak uprising. Never mind that Washington sought good relations with Egypt’s first freely elected government in thousands of years. Never mind that the Obama administration refuses to call the army’s coup what it plainly was in order to keep Egypt’s aid money flowing. None of that matters. The United States and its Zionist sidekick remain at the molten center of Egypt’s phantasmagorical demonology.

Bribing Egypt with billions of annual aid dollars to maintain its peace treaty with Israel and to keep a lid on radical Islam makes even less sense today than it did when Morsi and the Brotherhood were in charge. Morsi needed that money to prevent Egyptians from starving to death. He had a major incentive to cooperate—or else.

But now that the Brothers are out of the picture, partly at the behest of the Saudis, Riyadh says it will happily make up the difference if Washington turns off the aid spigot.

Turn it off then, already. Our money buys nothing from Sisi if he can replace it that easily. If he gets the same cash infusion whether or not he listens to the White House, why should he listen to the White House? He isn’t our friend. He’s only one step away from burning an American flag at a rally. He’s plenty motivated for his own reasons to keep radical Islamists in check since they’re out to destroy him. And his army is the one Egyptian institution that’s not at all interested in armed conflict with Israel because it would suffer more egregiously than anything or anyone else.

We’re either paying him out of sheer habit or because Washington thinks it might still get something back from its investment. Maybe it will, but it probably won’t.

Either way, Sisi instantly proved himself more violent and ruthless than Mubarak when he gave the order to gun down hundreds of unarmed civilians. The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood “retaliated” by burning dozens of churches, murdering Christians at random, and shooting policemen does not make what he did okay. He was, for a few days at least, no better than Bashar al-Assad. Giving him money and guns will make us no friends but plenty of enemies, especially when his regime proves itself no more capable of halting Egypt’s freefall than the last one.

Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations put it this way in the Los Angeles Times: “It is no coincidence that both Osama bin Laden and [al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-] Zawahiri hailed from US-allied nations that repressed their own citizens. Both men were drawn to the conclusion that the way to free their homelands was to attack their rulers’ patron. It is reasonable to expect that a new generation of Islamists in Egypt, now being taught that the peaceful path to power is no longer open, will turn to violence and that, as long as Washington is seen on the side of the generals, some of their violence will be directed our way.”

Even if the Egyptian army faces the kind of full-blown Islamist insurgency that ripped through Algeria in the 1990s—which is unlikely, but possible—Cairo will still get all the help it needs from the Gulf, not because the Saudis oppose radical Islam, but because they view the Muslim Brotherhood as the biggest long-term threat to their rule.

The case for walking away from Egypt and dusting our hands off is sound.

 

Libya, however, is another matter entirely.

Having learned in Iraq that occupying Arab lands is bad for everyone’s health, the US helped free Libya of Muammar el-Qaddafi without suffering even one single casualty. We did it all from the skies. The ground was thick with indigenous rebels, so no American ground troops were required. Qaddafi had no friends to come to his rescue and he stood no chance with his feeble and outdated hardware.

But then we lost Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others during the long Libyan aftermath, when a terrorist group tied to al-Qaeda attacked the US consulate in Benghazi. It happened on the same day—not coincidentally, on September 11th—that mobs of fanatical Salafists waving al-Qaeda flags rioted and set fires all over the region, using a ludicrous anti-Muhammad video uploaded to YouTube by a crackpot Egyptian “filmmaker” no one had ever heard of before as a pretext.

For reasons that still don’t make any sense, American officials falsely claimed the Benghazi incident was the result of yet another protest riot gone out of control. But there was no protest or riot in Benghazi related to that video, contrary to Washington’s initial clumsy and mendacious public statements.

Unlike in Egypt and even Tunisia, nobody in Libya protested against the United States for “allowing” a so-called blasphemous video to be uploaded to YouTube. The only demonstrations in Libya that week were against radical Islamists, against the terrorists that murdered Ambassador Stevens. The citizen groundswell against Benghazi’s Islamist militia was so intense that its members had to flee into the desert.

Libya is a traditional and conservative place, but that does not mean it’s Islamist. Two out of three Egyptians voted for Islamist parties in the post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, but in Libya, the National Forces Alliance, a moderate centrist party, won the most seats in 2012. The Justice and Construction Party—the political vehicle for Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood—only won ten percent of the vote. The Brotherhood isn’t quite as irrelevant in Libya as, say, the Green Party is in the United States, but it’s close.

Libya’s people are not just by and large against the Islamists. They are perhaps friendlier to the West in general and the United States in particular than anyone else in the Arab world.

It makes sense if you think about it. Under no theory can the United States be held responsible for Qaddafi’s crimes and repression. He was a self-declared enemy of America on the day he took power, and he’d still be tormenting his hapless citizens like a sadistic mad scientist if Americans hadn’t provided air support for the rebels. He received no money, no weapons, no training, no diplomatic cover—nothing—from the United States.

Every bad thing Libyans ever heard about Americans came from the internal propaganda organs of the man who kicked them in the face every day for forty-two years. At least some of their geopolitical views resemble those of Eastern Europeans under the communists—if the Americans are the enemies of our tyrannical government, how bad can they be? They are as pro-American as we could ever expect Arab Muslims to be.

Libya under Qaddafi had far too much government. Now it does not have enough. The previous regime was one of the most repressive on earth, and when it went down, most institutions—including the army—went with it. The state and its security forces are therefore too weak. They’re being rebuilt from scratch and won’t be finished for years.

There is no reason in the world for the US not to associate with or help Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and his colleagues. On the contrary, if the government can’t establish a monopoly on the use of force in the lawless parts of the country, Libya could end up an incubator of terrorism like Somalia, Yemen, or Mali, despite the fact that most of its people want nothing to do with it.

 

Syria is the last country we can afford to ignore right now, even though large numbers in both parties—for perfectly logical reasons—are averse to doing anything more than shuddering at a distance.

But what happens there is our business because it affects us. Syria isn’t Belize. It matters who runs that country, and it matters a lot.

Bashar al-Assad’s regime is the biggest state sponsor of international terrorism in the Arab world, and it’s aligned with the Islamic Republic regime in Iran, the biggest state sponsor of international terrorism in the entire world. Obviously, then, it’s in our interest to see him defeated.

One of his principal enemies on the home front, though, is the al-Qaeda–linked Nusra Front. Obviously it’s not in our interest to see these bin Ladenists replace Assad.

The Free Syrian Army is disgruntled at the lackluster assistance the United States has provided, but that’s partly because it has been fighting against Assad alongside the Nusra Front, and also because many of its own commanders are also Islamists, even if they’re moderate compared with al-Qaeda. The tactical alliance between the two groups is fracturing, and it won’t outlast Assad by even a week, but it’s enough to make Washington reluctant and skeptical.

Americans have always been willing to sacrifice money and lives for allies and friends, but allies and friends who are powerful enough inside Syria to affect outcomes are thin on the ground. Early in the game, the administration could have tried to arm, fund, and train a politically moderate fighting force inside Syria, but that will be a lot more difficult now that the Turks and the Gulf Arabs are backing their own proxies who don’t share our interests or values.

So there are those who say let them kill each other because, as Daniel Pipes argues, it “keeps them focused locally” and “prevents either one from emerging victorious.” It brings to mind Henry Kissinger’s famous quip about the Iran-Iraq war. “It’s too bad they can’t both lose.”

The operative word in Kissinger’s sentence is “can’t.” Opposing sides don’t zero each other out. That’s not how wars work, or end. Wars end when somebody wins. 

The worst-case scenario from an American point of view is that they both win. That’s an actual possibility. Syria could fracture into pieces. In a way, it already has. An Alawite rump state backed by Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia existing alongside a Sunnistan ruled by Islamists could very well emerge as a semi-permanent reality of Middle Eastern geography. At the very least, the United States needs a policy that reduces the likelihood of that most horrible outcome.

A few months ago, I asked the Lebanese MP Samy Gemayel what he thought about Washington’s confusion in Syria. “Before you can know what to do,” he said, “you have to know what you want.” One way or another, we should want both Assad and al-Qaeda to lose. But they aren’t going to lose simultaneously. They’ll need to lose consecutively. One of them first has to win.

So fight and defeat Bashar al-Assad, or support someone who will do it instead. Then fight and defeat the Nusra Front, or support someone who will do it instead.

Or face the fact that one or both are going to win. If the Nusra Front wins, we’ll have an Afghanistan on the Mediterranean. And if Assad wins, he could end up under an Iranian nuclear weapons umbrella.

 

Some parts of the world are like Las Vegas. What happens there, stays there. Sub-Saharan Africa is the primary example. Hardly anyone outside that region has even noticed that the various wars in Congo have killed millions of people since the late 1990s, and even fewer have cared.

The Middle East isn’t like that. Until cars and trucks can be powered by solar, wind, or nuclear energy, the entire world depends on the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf region. That requires American security guarantees, which require our presence. And until radical Islamist organizations utterly lose their local appeal, we’ll have little choice but to intervene periodically for reasons that have nothing to do with economics or resources. For the time being, aggravating though it may be, Americans and Arabs are stuck with each other. We can take a bit of a breather, but retirement is decades away.

Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor at World Affairs and the author of four books, including Where the West Ends and The Road to Fatima Gate.

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