Saturday, August 24, 2013

Face It: Democracy Isn’t for Everyone. By George Jonas.

Democracy — Your mileage may vary. By George Jonas. National Post, August 24, 2013.


Egypt is a sufficiently large and complex country to stymie not only friendly foreigners who try to rule it, but its own inhabitants. What seems evident is that ruling it requires the support of the military, and the support of the military cannot be taken for granted by anyone.
Egypt’s regime change this summer, though precipitated by huge popular demonstrations, is, for all intents and purposes, a military coup. Few dispute this, but let me go further and suggest that Egypt experienced two military coups in less than three years, disguised as popular revolts. The first coup toppled the long dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak; the second nipped the attempted dictatorship of Mohammed Morsi in the bud. It appeared both Mubarak and Morsi thought (or hoped) that Egypt’s military under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi would side with him against Egypt’s rebels, whether Islamic fundamentalist or liberal secularists, but the general ended up siding simply with himself both times. Now he seems all set to hold the reins of power in his own hands until someone capable, and of whom he approves, agrees to hold them on his behalf.
The Egyptian military may be every bit as as loyal to its country as other militaries are to theirs, but it is loyal to its own concept of Egypt, not somebody else’s. They don’t like an ex-military man like Mubarak when he shows signs of trying to start a dynasty in his old age, and like an ex-Muslim Brotherhood activist like Morsi, who uses his electoral victory to build a theocracy in Gen. el-Sisi’s Egypt, even less. The Junker-class of the country may not be democrats, but they seem equally uninterested in becoming armed servants in King Mubarak’s court or soldiers in the pay of some bearded council of ayatollahs, like Muslim equivalents of the Pope’s Swiss Guard. They want to rule themselves, or even better, have someone rule on their behalf.

That’s what everybody thought Mubarak did for many years, as he may have, until he started working for himself. A long-time dictator can easily develop the delusion that he doesn’t work for the generals, the generals work for him. If so, it was a fatal error. It made Mubarak’s illusion of having the military “behind him” actually mean that he had his enemy at his back.
Every culture wages war its own way. In Egypt military coups are demilitarized. They are ostensibly civilian conflicts, instigated and carried out by civilians, at most involving the police. The soldiers don’t leave their barracks until the civilians are at each others’ throats, then show up with the big guns, do the real coup under the guise of restoring peace, and return to barracks with a renewed lease on power as their trophy. In a coup, Egyptian-style, the contestants box in the ring for the championship, and the referee gets to take home the belt.
The events that led to Gen. el-Sisi & Co. taking over Egypt had no single cause, but the Obama-administration kick-started the process with the President’s 2009 speech at Cairo University. “A New Beginning,” the title chosen for Obama’s address, was a performance worthy of the sorcerer’s apprentice and had roughly the same result.  The convolutions of the region haven’t subsided yet. On the whole, it is a good idea not to push buttons without knowing what they might activate, which in some parts of the world may mean not pushing any buttons, at least for a while.
Two years ago I wrote that toppling strongmen in the Middle East may or may not be good news for Western democracies, and may or may not be a good idea for the countries involved. It depends on who replaces the strongmen. Stronger men? Weaker men? Better men? Democrats?
What I didn’t write then, but will write now, is that if it’s democrats, it may not be good news for democracy. Democrats coming to a region before it’s ready for them, can have a deleterious effect on both the region and democracy.
Democracy is a superior system when it functions, but so far it hasn’t functioned consistently except in a handful of Western countries. Like an exotic car, it’s sensitive, and requires expert drivers and well-paved roads. On unimproved back roads a simpler, sturdier design performs more reliably. A stable, benevolent autocracy may offer more mileage and a safer drive than a volatile, sensitive democracy under some circumstances.
In February, 2011, I wrote that the great Western democracies were never above accepting help from tin-pot dictators, only above helping them when they got into trouble. Strongmen were well advised to remain strong, because they couldn’t count on the West even for refuge, let alone rescue. Now with Egypt’s new rulers, we have the choice of sitting on our democratic high horse and say to Gen. el-Sisi: You can’t be our friend unless you let our enemies rule your country. You won’t see a penny, unless you honour the election results.
Or President Obama can say, well, I won’t make any speeches in Cairo for a while. How is that for a new beginning?

That Failed Grand Strategy in the Middle East. By Walter Russell Mead.

That Failed Grand Strategy in the Middle East. By Walter Russell Mead. Wall Street Journal, August 23, 2013. Also here.

WRM in WSJ: Obama’s Failed Grand Strategy. By Walter Russell Mead. Via Meadia, August 24, 2013.

America’s march of folly in the Middle East continues. By Abraham Ben-Zvi. Israel Hayom, August 23, 2013.


In the beginning, the Hebrew Bible tells us, the universe was all “tohu wabohu,” chaos and tumult. This month the Middle East seems to be reverting to that primeval state: Iraq continues to unravel, the Syrian War grinds on with violence spreading to Lebanon and allegations of chemical attacks this week, and Egypt stands on the brink of civil war with the generals crushing the Muslim Brotherhood and street mobs torching churches. Turkey’s prime minister, once widely hailed as President Obama's best friend in the region, blames Egypt's violence on the Jews; pretty much everyone else blames it on the U.S.
The Obama administration had a grand strategy in the Middle East. It was well intentioned, carefully crafted and consistently pursued.
Unfortunately, it failed.
The plan was simple but elegant: The U.S. would work with moderate Islamist groups like Turkey’s AK Party and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to make the Middle East more democratic. This would kill three birds with one stone. First, by aligning itself with these parties, the Obama administration would narrow the gap between the “moderate middle” of the Muslim world and the U.S. Second, by showing Muslims that peaceful, moderate parties could achieve beneficial results, it would isolate the terrorists and radicals, further marginalizing them in the Islamic world. Finally, these groups with American support could bring democracy to more Middle Eastern countries, leading to improved economic and social conditions, gradually eradicating the ills and grievances that drove some people to fanatical and terroristic groups.
President Obama (whom I voted for in 2008) and his team hoped that the success of the new grand strategy would demonstrate once and for all that liberal Democrats were capable stewards of American foreign policy. The bad memories of the Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter presidencies would at last be laid to rest; with the public still unhappy with George W. Bush’s foreign policy troubles, Democrats would enjoy a long-term advantage as the party most trusted by voters to steer the country through stormy times.
It is much too early to anticipate history’s verdict on the Obama administration’s foreign policy; the president has 41 months left in his term, and that is more than enough for the picture in the Middle East to change drastically once again. Nevertheless, to get a better outcome, the president will have to change his approach.
With the advantages of hindsight, it appears that the White House made five big miscalculations about the Middle East. It misread the political maturity and capability of the Islamist groups it supported; it misread the political situation in Egypt; it misread the impact of its strategy on relations with America’s two most important regional allies (Israel and Saudi Arabia); it failed to grasp the new dynamics of terrorist movements in the region; and it underestimated the costs of inaction in Syria.
America’s Middle East policy in the past few years depended on the belief that relatively moderate Islamist political movements in the region had the political maturity and administrative capability to run governments wisely and well. That proved to be half-true in the case of Turkey’s AK Party: Until fairly recently Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whatever mistakes he might make, seemed to be governing Turkey in a reasonably effective and reasonably democratic way. But over time, the bloom is off that rose. Mr. Erdogan’s government has arrested journalists, supported dubious prosecutions against political enemies, threatened hostile media outlets and cracked down crudely on protesters. Prominent members of the party leadership look increasingly unhinged, blaming Jews, telekinesis and other mysterious forces for the growing troubles it faces.
Things have reached such a pass that the man President Obama once listed as one of his five best friends among world leaders and praised as “an outstanding partner and an outstanding friend on a wide range of issues” is now being condemned by the U.S. government for “offensive” anti-Semitic charges that Israel was behind the overthrow of Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi.
Compared with Mr. Morsi, however, Mr. Erdogan is a Bismarck of effective governance and smart policy. Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were quite simply not ready for prime time; they failed to understand the limits of their mandate, fumbled incompetently with a crumbling economy and governed so ineptly and erratically that tens of millions of Egyptians cheered on the bloody coup that threw them out.
Tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists and incompetent bumblers make a poor foundation for American grand strategy. We would have done business with the leaders of Turkey and Egypt under almost any circumstances, but to align ourselves with these movements hasn’t turned out to be wise.
The White House, along with much of the rest of the American foreign policy world, made another key error in the Middle East: It fundamentally misread the nature of the political upheaval in Egypt. Just as Thomas Jefferson mistook the French Revolution for a liberal democratic movement like the American Revolution, so Washington thought that what was happening in Egypt was a “transition to democracy.” That was never in the cards.
What happened in Egypt was that the military came to believe that an aging President Hosni Mubarak was attempting to engineer the succession of his son, turning Egypt from a military republic to a dynastic state. The generals fought back; when unrest surged, the military stood back and let Mr. Mubarak fall. The military, incomparably more powerful than either the twittering liberals or the bumbling Brotherhood, has now acted to restore the form of government Egypt has had since the 1950s. Now most of the liberals seem to understand that only the military can protect them from the Islamists, and the Islamists are learning that the military is still in charge. During these events, the Americans and Europeans kept themselves endlessly busy and entertained trying to promote a nonexistent democratic transition.
The next problem is that the Obama administration misread the impact that its chosen strategies would have on relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia—and underestimated just how miserable those two countries can make America’s life in the Middle East if they are sufficiently annoyed.
The break with Israel came early. In those unforgettable early days when President Obama was being hailed by the press as a new Lincoln and Roosevelt, the White House believed that it could force Israel to declare a total settlement freeze to restart negotiations with the Palestinians. The resulting flop was President Obama’s first big public failure in foreign policy. It would not be the last. (For the past couple of years, the administration has been working to repair relations with the Israelis; as one result, the peace talks that could have started in 2009 with better U.S. management are now under way.)
The breach with Saudis came later and this one also seems to have caught the White House by surprise. By aligning itself with Turkey and Mr. Morsi’s Egypt, the White House was undercutting Saudi policy in the region and siding with Qatar’s attempt to seize the diplomatic initiative from its larger neighbor.
Many Americans don’t understand just how much the Saudis dislike the Brotherhood and the Islamists in Turkey. Not all Islamists are in accord; the Saudis have long considered the Muslim Brotherhood a dangerous rival in the world of Sunni Islam. Prime Minister Erdogan’s obvious hunger to revive Turkey’s glorious Ottoman days when the center of Sunni Islam was in Istanbul is a direct threat to Saudi primacy. That Qatar and its Al Jazeera press poodle enthusiastically backed the Turks and the Egyptians with money, diplomacy and publicity only angered the Saudis more. With America backing this axis—while also failing to heed Saudi warnings about Iran and Syria—Riyadh wanted to undercut rather than support American diplomacy. An alliance with the Egyptian military against Mr. Morsi’s weakening government provided an irresistible opportunity to knock Qatar, the Brotherhood, the Turks and the Americans back on their heels.
The fourth problem is that the administration seems to have underestimated the vitality and adaptability of the loose group of terrorist movements and cells. The death of Osama bin Laden was a significant victory, but the effective suppression of the central al Qaeda organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan was anything but a knockout blow. Today a resurgent terrorist movement can point to significant achievements in the Libya-Mali theater, in northern Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere. The closure of 20 American diplomatic facilities this month was a major moral victory for the terrorists, demonstrating that they retain the capacity to affect American behavior in a major way. Recruiting is easier, morale is higher, and funding is easier to get for our enemies than President Obama once hoped.
Finally, the administration, rightfully concerned about the costs of intervention in Syria, failed to grasp early enough just how much it would cost to stay out of this ugly situation. As the war has dragged on, the humanitarian toll has grown to obscene proportions (far worse than anything that would have happened in Libya without intervention), communal and sectarian hatreds have become poisonous almost ensuring more bloodletting and ethnic and religious cleansing, and instability has spread from Syria into Iraq, Lebanon and even Turkey. All of these problems grow worse the longer the war goes on—but it is becoming harder and costlier almost day by day to intervene.
But beyond these problems, the failure to intervene early in Syria (when “leading from behind” might well have worked) has handed important victories to both the terrorists and the Russia-Iran axis, and has seriously eroded the Obama administration’s standing with important allies. Russia and Iran backed Bashar al-Assad; the president called for his overthrow—and failed to achieve it. To hardened realists in Middle Eastern capitals, this is conclusive proof that the American president is irredeemably weak. His failure to seize the opportunity for what the Russians and Iranians fear would have been an easy win in Syria cannot be explained by them in any other way.
This is dangerous. Just as Nikita Khrushchev concluded that President Kennedy was weak and incompetent after the Bay of Pigs failure and the botched Vienna summit, and then proceeded to test the American president from Cuba to Berlin, so President Vladimir Putin and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei now believe they are dealing with a dithering and indecisive American leader, and are calibrating their policies accordingly. Khrushchev was wrong about Kennedy, and President Obama’s enemies are also underestimating him, but those underestimates can create dangerous crises before they are corrected.

If American policy in Syria has been a boon to the Russians and Iranians, it has been a godsend to the terrorists. The prolongation of the war has allowed terrorist and radical groups to establish themselves as leaders in the Sunni fight against the Shiite enemy. A reputation badly tarnished by both their atrocities and their defeat in Iraq has been polished and enhanced by what is seen as their courage and idealism in Syria. The financial links between wealthy sources in the Gulf and jihadi fighter groups, largely sundered in the last 10 years, have been rebuilt and strengthened. Thousands of radicals are being trained and indoctrinated, to return later to their home countries with new skills, new ideas and new contacts. This development in Syria looks much more dangerous than the development of the original mujahedeen in Afghanistan; Afghanistan is a remote and (most Middle Easterners believe) a barbarous place. Syria is in the heart of the region and the jihadi spillover threatens to be catastrophic.
One of the interesting elements of the current situation is that while American foreign policy has encountered one setback after another in the region, America’s three most important historical partners—Egypt’s military, Saudi Arabia and Israel—have all done pretty well and each has bested the U.S. when policies diverged.
Alliances play a large role in America’s foreign policy success; tending the Middle Eastern alliances now in disarray may be the Obama administration’s best hope now to regain its footing.
As the Obama administration struggles to regain its footing in this volatile region, it needs to absorb the lessons of the past 4½ years. First, allies matter. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Egyptian military have been America's most important regional allies both because they share strategic interests and because they are effective actors in a way that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and smaller states aren’t. If these three forces are working with you, then things often go reasonably well. If one or more of them is trying to undercut you, pain comes. The Obama administration undertook the hard work necessary to rebuild its relationship with Israel; it needs to devote more attention to the concerns of the Egyptian generals and the House of Saud. Such relationships don’t mean abandoning core American values; rather they recognize the limits on American power and seek to add allies where our own unaided efforts cannot succeed.
Second, the struggle against terror is going to be harder than we hoped. Our enemies have scattered and multiplied, and the violent jihadi current has renewed its appeal. In the Arab world, in parts of Africa, in Europe and in the U.S., a constellation of revitalized and inventive movements now seeks to wreak havoc. It is delusional to believe that we can eliminate this problem by eliminating poverty, underdevelopment, dictatorship or any other “root causes” of the problem; we cannot eliminate them in a policy-relevant time frame. An ugly fight lies ahead. Instead of minimizing the terror threat in hopes of calming the public, the president must prepare public opinion for a long-term struggle.
Third, the focus must now return to Iran. Concern with Iran’s growing power is the thread that unites Israel and Saudi Arabia. Developing and moving on an Iran strategy that both Saudis and Israelis can support will help President Obama rebuild America’s position in the shifting sands. That is likely to mean a much tougher policy on Syria. Drawing red lines in the sand and stepping back when they are crossed won't rebuild confidence.
President Obama now faces a moment similar to the one President Carter faced when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The assumptions that shaped key elements of his foreign policy have not held up; times have changed radically and policy must shift. The president is a talented leader; the world will be watching what he does.


Despite the fact that these history lessons are in plain view for another liberal president to see – a “poor man’s Kennedy” who goes by the name Obama – the American march of folly continued onward, this time to Cairo.
Upon assuming the presidency in January 2009, Obama was determined to open a new, more conciliatory chapter with the Muslim world. He sought to offer an array of confidence-building gestures that would eventually lead the world to a utopia of moderation and pragmatic deal-making. Yet even before it was possible to gauge the practicality of this dramatic initiative (which was introduced to the world in the form of the Cairo speech delivered by the president on June 4, 2009), the Arab Spring burst onto the scene with a violent bang and completely reshuffled the deck.
Since the emergence of the Arab Spring, one would be hard-pressed to pinpoint one realistic, sober-minded move by the Obama administration in the region, particularly over Egypt. In light of the endless stream of mistakes and mishaps, one can only be sorry that famed historian Barbra Tuchman, who penned such classics as the unforgettable The March of Folly, is no longer with us. Otherwise, she would have been able to add an entire chapter about one of many follies that have been committed in Washington's dealings with Cairo.
The explosion of the Arab Spring in the town squares of the Egyptian capital in the winter of 2011 and the slogans of democracy that were bandied about at the time fell on attentive ears in Washington. Like Kennedy, Obama quickly became convinced that a window of opportunity had presented itself, one which would allow him to advance the process of Western-style democratization in Egypt. He believed this despite the fact that Egyptian society and its institutions had not undergone the requisite moral metamorphosis necessary for a democracy to take root.
The administration was completely blinded by its own lofty rhetoric, which supporters of the revolution used in their struggle to bring down Hosni Mubarak's regime. That was when the U.S. decided to abandon its longtime, reliable ally. As it did with Iran during the waning days of the Shah's government, the U.S. repeated its stance 30 years later in the Egyptian context. There is no doubt that Mubarak acted with aggression against his political rivals, and that his regime bore none of the hallmarks of democratic governance.
From a geostrategic standpoint, on the other hand, the tremendous, years-long contribution that Mubarak, as a pivotal member of the moderate Sunni camp, made to Western security cannot be disputed. Nonetheless, despite his status as a valued asset, the Egyptian president was left to his own devices.
This American tragedy continued after the Egyptian elections, when Obama gave his stamp of approval to the man who ascended to the top office, Mohammed Morsi.
The fact that the new president did not even bother to internalize the essence and the spirit of democratic governance and instead worked tirelessly to tighten his grip on power while at the same time cutting the opposition down to size did not prompt the White House to reassess its support of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government.
Since Morsi’s government was removed from power six weeks ago by the military (which espouses an avowedly pro-Western orientation), it appears the White House has yet to recover from the shock of what is perceived as Egypt's regression to the pre-democratic era. The administration’s attitude to the new strongman in Cairo, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, is chilly, even bordering on hostile.
Not a day goes by without Washington complaining to the new regime about its behavior. The most recent dustup came as a result of the decision to arrest Muslim Brotherhood chief Mohammed Badie.

America, “A Nation of Sullen Paranoids.” By Peggy Noonan.

“A Nation of Sullen Paranoids.” By Peggy Noonan. Wall Street Journal, August 23, 2013.

Too much security can produce a kind of madness.

Egypt’s False Dichotomies. By Rania Al Malky.

Egypt’s False Dichotomies. By Rania Al Malky. The Egypt Monocle, August 21, 2013.

Egypt’s Dirty War? By Jon Lee Anderson. The New Yorker, August 21, 2013.

Egypt’s Coup Breaths New Life Into Al-Qaeda. By Bruce Reidel.

Egypt’s Coup Breaths New Life Into Al-Qaeda. By Bruce Reidel. Al-Monitor, August 20, 2013.