Barack Obama and the Great Arab Revolt.
May 9, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 32 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
We may never know whether the conjecture of the historian Fouad Ajami is correct: that President Barack Obama sought the approval of the Arab League for the air war against Muammar Qaddafi because he thought the league—an organization that has always shown greater sympathy for the region’s rulers than for its citizenry—would turn down the French-led request to unleash Western airpower to save Benghazi. President Obama has certainly seemed sincere, if not Kennedyesque, in his intent to save the rebels in the eastern half of the country from the depredations of the most Orwellian strongman in the Middle East. But his sincerity rests in constant tension with the core tenet of a developing Obama Doctrine: American hegemony is not a good thing, either for the United States or for the world.
President Obama and administration officials give the impression that success in the Middle East is defined more by the firmness with which the United States adheres to that principle than by what actually happens on the ground. As Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Antony Blinken, put it in speaking of the Libyan mission: “We did lead—we cleared the way for the allies.” Thus, what is critical is whether the Europeans in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are front and center in the Libyan war and not whether that division of labor compromises the opposition’s chances of a timely military success—or even the integrity of NATO itself. A protracted stalemate in Libya is thus preferable to a war where the United States would be the decisive military agent of regime change.
It’s a good bet that the president, let alone the politicos and think-tankers who staff his administration and cut their teeth describing the failings of George W. Bush in Iraq, has wondered what would be the moral difference between President Obama who, without U.N. authorization, unleashes the CIA and Special Forces in support of a Libyan opposition incapable of overthrowing Qaddafi, and President Bush, who downed Saddam Hussein with more conventional U.S. boots on the ground. By Obama’s calculations, American standing in the Muslim world is somehow enhanced if special forces from Britain, France, and Italy—the three former colonial powers of North Africa—train and militarily guide the natives while the United States kills selectively with predator drones.
The Middle East is now more in play than it has been since the British and French empires started cracking after World War II. The common grievances of the oppressed denizens—the lawlessness of the ruling class, the individual and collective shame that comes with unrequited hopes and ambitions, the unrelenting boredom of young men without enough money or women—have melded with universal ideals. Democracy, individualism, and the (very Islamic) right of rebellion against unjust rulers have combined to give courage to young men and women whose forefathers were often pilloried and praised for their obsequiousness. Hegel’s famous line about Islamic civilization—“Islam has long vanished from the stage of history at large, and has retreated into oriental ease and repose”—obviously needs to be revised. A dynamic spirit is again loose in Arab lands—it’s been galloping in Iran since 1979—altering our and, much more important, their conception of what citizenship means in the Middle East.
This spirit caught President Obama completely off-guard. The president’s odd foreign-policy mix of the “realism” of George H.W. Bush with the anti-imperialism of Frantz Fanon, which has been spiced since Egypt’s revolt with touches of George W. Bush’s freedom agenda, is a welter of contradictions that the president and his staff have yet to glue into a coherent strategy. (Pity the Egyptian, Libyan, and Bahraini prodemocracy demonstrators, or the conservative Saudi or Bahraini ruling families, who are trying to assess the president’s words and actions.) George H.W. Bush is reputed to have remarked when Hosni Mubarak was sent packing that he was a “good man” who did not live ostentatiously and a “true friend of the United States” who has been shabbily treated. His son, on hearing the same news, reportedly called the former Egyptian president a “bastard” who deserved his fall.
President Obama seems incapable of either sentiment. He obviously knows this is a momentous time for the region—he has said so often. But the abstractness of his attachment to foreign affairs has seeped into the National Security Council and the State Department, making his team often sound like professors testing a new game theory. It leaves him vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the Great Arab Revolt, which have likely only just begun to shake the region. Depending on what happens in Bahrain, Syria, and Libya, the region may get extraordinarily bloody. If Bahrain were to descend into a savage Sunni-versus-Shiite insurrection, inflaming Sunni-Shiite relations in Saudi Arabia’s neighboring oil-rich Eastern Province, the United States could easily be looking at $7-a-gallon gasoline. If Qaddafi goes down, a rebellion could start in neighboring Algeria, which has probably been slow to ignite because of the memories of its ferocious civil war in the 1990s. Turmoil in oil- and natural gas-rich Algeria could also send energy prices spiraling.
Regardless of whether one thinks the president’s intervention in Libya was right or wrong, the way he intervened has likely guaranteed that the eventual fall of Qaddafi will cost many more lives and leave Libya in worse shape than if Obama had chosen more aggressive American action—including lots of Special Forces on the ground—earlier. The president had to know—despite whatever Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said publicly—that the decision to intervene meant regime change. The stiff retorts of Gates to questions about American objectives in Libya show his concern about “mission creep.” It will be brutally ironic if Gates, the administration’s preeminent “realist,” who surely would have opposed the Iraq “surge” if he’d stayed in the Iraq Study Group, ends up making in Libya exactly the same mistake as his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, in Iraq: dogged opposition to sending sufficient force to accomplish the mission.
The French and the British always knew this wasn’t just a humanitarian operation. They also know, better than anyone, that NATO is effective only with American leadership. It is astonishing that Clinton administration officials did not more vigorously warn Obama about the reality of NATO’s command structure and culture. It is astonishing that the president, who has watched the European commitment dwindle in Afghanistan, would want to attach the credibility of his presidency to a European-led gambit where, to borrow from Antony Blinken, “patience” is the decisive virtue. (Imagine for a moment that the Algerian military junta, viewing Qaddafi now as a bulwark against internal rebellion, clandestinely supplies the Libyan regime with munitions and other aid. Our patience then would work to strengthen Qaddafi.) Although this was not Obama’s initial intent, he is now trying to turn NATO into an EU defense force, something France and Britain once contemplated and abandoned precisely because both parties realized that the United States really was the “indispensable nation.”
The French and British welfare states have eaten their countries’ armed forces (the once formidable Royal Navy will soon not even have a jump-jet aircraft carrier). With the exception of the French, the rest of NATO—“the mightiest military alliance in the world”—is still more pathetic in its capacity to project force, even across the Mediterranean. Given that Obama’s own budget would slash American defense spending to help save the American welfare state, he might have had a bit more sympathy for the European predicament. Obama may think, as Ryan Lizza suggests in the New Yorker, that his leadership will ultimately be tested further east, with the rise of India and China, and through the management of America’s (presumed) relative global decline. But presidential leadership is always tested—often defined—by war. Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya, not China (unless Beijing makes a military play for Taiwan), seem on track to write the most telling part of Barack Obama’s “profile in courage.”
We are now caught in the peculiar position of having as commander in chief of a new war in the Middle East, a region that mercilessly embraces power politics, a man who sees hesitancy as deliberation and retreat as strength. The crisis of the American welfare state may in part explain the president’s reluctance to will the means to complete his own mission; as the columnist E.J. Dionne remarked, war is hell on the spending priorities of progressives. Yet the president’s deliberations surely proceed from a mindset that sees American power as prone to cause more harm than good, the belief that American intervention, especially in the Middle East, ineluctably creates virulent antibodies.
In the Kenyan chapters of his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, Obama is unsettled by British colonialism in his father’s native land. The graduate of Harvard Law was searching for his own authenticity and found the cultural mixing bowl of postcolonial Kenya. Through relatives’ voices and his own, Obama expresses regret over the “inorganic” growth of Kenyan culture brought on by the European intrusion. Obama is aware that the British brought more than just the servitude of his grandparents. He, like every American president since Woodrow Wilson, pays tribute to “universal” (that is, Western) rights. Nevertheless, he remains uneasy about our intellectual exports. Like many men of the left, like most “realists,” he gives his attention first to the natives’ search for authenticity, not to their profound, often bulldozer-like, love affair with Westernization. That Libyans could be inspired by the ideas of freedom and democracy, and at the same time actually want the United States to blast the hell out of Qaddafi’s army, must be disturbing to one who has accepted some of the third-world critique of American imperialism.
Administration officials in any discussion of Libya are quick to underscore the greater importance of Egypt. It is the most populous Arab state, historically the most modern, blessed and cursed with the most consequential lay and religious Arab intellectuals of the 20th century, home to the most influential fundamentalist organization in the Islamic world, and has probably the most embittered population in the region. The distance between Egyptian dreams and Egyptian reality is extreme—in the Middle East, only Iranians might be more angered and propelled by the disconnect between their idealized self-conceptions and their history.
The March 19 referendum effectively ended the Facebook stage of the Egyptian revolt. Until the referendum, it was possible to entertain the idea that the Tahrir Square demonstrations offered a good composite of the country’s political preferences. The breathless reporting in both Western and Arabic media about young men and women striving for freedom made it appear that Islam was no longer the political faith of the young and the Muslim Brotherhood was insufficiently modern to command the political high ground after Mubarak’s fall.
It’s still difficult to grasp the meaning of the vote. In voting “yes,” a landslide majority—77.2 percent—endorsed the amending of Egypt’s constitution to allow for parliamentary elections by September. But the “liberal” element in the country pushed hard for a “no” vote, in the hope of allowing the unelected provisional government to hold power longer while political parties readied themselves for elections. The liberals lost the argument. The military, for its part, doesn’t want to become a focal point of popular anger by ruling directly. It’s a near miracle that there haven’t been more protests against the military, given how intimately the senior officer corps was intertwined with Mubarak’s dictatorship. And it’s by no means clear that the military would want more progressive types to do well in elections. Egyptian liberals might take a dimmer view of military spending than the Muslim Brotherhood, which has always had an Islamic Egypt-über-alles spirit. Also, the Egyptian hard left may soon get a new birth, seizing the fraternal idealism of the pan-Arabist Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasserism was rough on the military. Against Israel and in Yemen it didn’t do so well (the “pan-Arabist” Yemen fiasco in the 1960s cost over 25,000 Egyptian lives and nearly wrecked the army in what Egyptians have called their Vietnam). The military, whose upper reaches have become quite cosseted, may not care at all for left-wing secular types’ reviving the dear-departed Nasser (no risk of that from the Muslim Brotherhood, which Nasser first embraced and then tortured).
Much has been made of how the Brotherhood and allied preachers rallied the religious countryside and urban areas to vote for Islam by voting “yes” in the referendum. The Western media, whose sympathies understandably are with the Facebook-generation protesters, have taken little note of that portion of “no” voters who saw their vote as a call for transition and stability. It’s unclear how many of this group are a natural constituency for the Brotherhood, but it’s worth remembering that Egyptian society by and large is religious. Faith-based parties have a natural edge over any secular party so far formed because of cultural preferences and class. No matter how much time the liberal secular parties have to organize and hone their message, they will have difficulty winning over these Egyptians, at least until the Muslim Brotherhood is actually tested in office. Patience, here, is a virtue.
A Turkish parallel may be helpful. The center-left standard-bearer of Atatürkism, the Republican People’s party, has for years done poorly in elections. There are many reasons for the party’s political decline, but a not insignificant one is its culture, which is perhaps best described as “wine-drinking.” The CHP, as the party is abbreviated in Turkish, doesn’t bother to compete anymore in religious neighborhoods because its senior members generally would rather be whipped than spend much time talking to faithful Turks. In the 1980s, the Motherland party, an eclectic collection of secularists and religious Turks, rose to power because its leaders, especially the unstoppable dynamo Turgut Ozal, were as comfortable with the devout as with the Europeanized Istanbul elite. Until Ozal’s personal eccentricities got the better of him, he had a huge following among faithful Turks.
The Motherland party made it okay to be religious (Ozal famously went on the hajj to Mecca and decorated his office with surahs from the Koran). An Egyptian Mother-land party—part secular, part religious—might do very well in elections. No such party has yet emerged, but the reasons for its creation in Turkey could have parallels in Egypt: the failure of mainstream secular parties, especially in handling the economy, and the political and ideological ineptitude of fundamentalists.
So far, however, the Brotherhood hasn’t displayed ineptitude. The group’s massive social welfare network is already transitioning to a nationwide political party. And the common Western assertion that the Brother-hood no longer appeals to the young should be greeted skeptically. Since its founding in 1928, the Brotherhood has repeatedly experienced quarrels between its younger and older members, and between radicals and conservatives. Each time, the organization has survived and grown. Its appeal and evolution are, of course, likely to be radically different in a democratic, Internet age. As Iran has shown with increasing clarity since the presidential election of the reformist Mohammad Khatami in 1997, wrapping oneself in Islamic dogma and social values works only so long before the electorate becomes critical, cantankerous, and rebellious.
The Brothers obviously smell victory, as senior members regularly hint that the group will contest an ever-increasing number of parliamentary seats. The Brother-hood has said that it will not put forth a candidate for the presidency for fear of spooking secular Egyptians and the military. But the organization could easily change its mind if it senses a real possibility of triumph. Western and Egyptian analysts have suggested that the group doesn’t want to rush to power, given the magnitude of Egypt’s economic and social problems. Better to lie back and allow others to flame out trying to bring greater prosperity and social justice to the country’s vast underclass.
But that analysis is probably too clever. The politically motivated usually see themselves as essential to addressing the nation’s woes. This is especially true for the Brother-hood, who have always diagnosed Egypt’s problems first and foremost ethically. Bad akhlaq, religious mores, produced bad leaders and bad policies. Better akhlaq, which the Brotherhood promises, can’t help but be an improvement. And the Brotherhood, if it wins at least 25 percent of the seats in parliament (let alone if it wins the presidency, the power center), could quickly bring more “Muslim virtue” to Egypt. Expect a Muslim Brotherhood-led government to rein in the “Europeanization” of tourism in Egypt—the casinos will go bye-bye, access to alcohol will shrink, and public dress codes may become much more conservative for women.
It’s difficult to assess how much appeal the Muslim Brotherhood has within the officer corps (the Egyptian military, unlike the Turkish armed forces, has always been comfortable with devout men within its ranks); probably little in the upper ranks. Egyptian counterintelligence is pretty good, and it’s made surveillance of the Brotherhood an art. The Egyptian military has been allowing (maybe encouraging) the partial dismantlement of Mubarak’s police state. It’s likely, however, that the army will keep in place those units that have specialized in monitoring and placing moles in the Brotherhood. Whatever the inner circles of the Brotherhood are thinking, and we can expect these ruminations to become increasingly public as political campaigns become serious, Egyptian intelligence probably knows it.
Obviously, the armed forces have been willing to allow the Brotherhood running room in Egyptian society. This reflects an official understanding since President Anwar Sadat (who loved to highlight his fastidiousness about daily prayer) that Mother Egypt is devout. The Mubarak regime achieved a certain peace of mind by both pacifying and coopting the Brotherhood. It used police-state coercion, but also left considerable freedom for Brothers to proselytize among the poorly educated and university graduates. More or less unrestricted in their ability to try to convert “bad” Muslims into “good” Muslims, the faithful could pursue their mission civilisatrice and refrain from rebellion against the ruling elite.
The regime, meanwhile, didn’t have to fear a liberal/Brotherhood alliance. This allowed Mubarak a freer hand to squash any potential liberal opposition, which (unlike tortured Brothers) could gain sympathy in the West and possibly compromise Cairo’s billions from Washington and the lucrative tourist trade. The Brothers’ “neo-fundamentalism”—which stressed social work and ethics, not politics—became the model for fundamentalists everywhere confronted by powerful Westernized police states. That model is now coming apart.
What is the Egyptian military’s tolerance for fundamentalist politics? Probably pretty high. The officer corps lives in its own physically isolated world where its ethics rule supreme. The Brotherhood has been extraordinarily careful in its commentary on the army since the tumult started. The Egyptian military hasn’t cracked apart like the shah’s. Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, a medal-festooned pillar of the ancien régime and now chairman of the governing council, has proved surprisingly nimble, keeping the revolt’s anger directed away from him and towards the more-despised police-state institutions. He seems now to have a working relationship with the Brotherhood. And precisely because the military isn’t a bastion of secularism, it could well be comfortable with much more Islam in the public square.
The divisive issue will probably be women. The daughters of senior officers are generally secular and well-educated. And the Brotherhood, like all Muslim fundamentalists, is all about female virtue—protecting it from the depredations of men and the libidinous urges of women. The hinge of modern Egyptian history, the future of the Muslim Brotherhood, may well hang on how socially conservative the army is about women. (If the Brotherhood is undone in parliamentary elections, the odds are good the driving force behind a more progressive turnout will be faithful Muslim women who nevertheless don’t trust the Brotherhood on the issue of women’s rights.) The military and the Brotherhood may well do a dance on this issue, which should provoke a healthy national debate about women, especially the personal-status laws mandated by sharia (covering marriage, inheritance, child custody, and apostasy). Egyptian law is currently a medley of Holy Law-inspired family statutes circumscribed by French civil law, which became the juridical standard for most issues after World War II. The Brotherhood must try to make Egyptian society more virtuous—more sharia and less Code Napoléon. A big, convulsive battle is likely coming to Cairo soon.
But what is most urgent for the administration to understand is that a new Egyptian parliament will probably see a sizable bloc of leftists and Islamists unite for a vote against the peace treaty with Israel. Any Arab democracy will be more “Islamic” as it gives vent to an identity long suppressed by Westernized autocrats. In the beginning, both the left and the religious right will rebel against the preferences of their dethroned “pro-American” autocrats. Administration officials like to talk about the urgent need for economic aid to Egypt, and the possibility of a joint U.S.-EU effort to see Cairo through the difficult next year. But no American aid will arrive—and probably no EU aid either—if an Egyptian parliament votes down the peace accord.
Apart from jeopardizing Western aid, such a vote might have little practical effect. Relations on the ground and in the air between the Egyptian and Israeli militaries are unlikely to change. Muslim Arab democracies will presumably be less likely to go to war with the Jewish state than dictatorships have been, since democracies consume most of their passion internally unless attacked. The Brotherhood’s greater focus so far on internal problems suggests that its antipathy towards Israel might be a vote-getter but won’t fuel a call for war. And needless to say, the Egyptian Army, which orders weaponry from Washington primarily with the Jewish state in mind, is acutely aware that its “great victory” in 1973 left the Israelis on the western side of the Suez Canal and the Egyptian Army stranded in the Sinai.
But the psychological effect of a no-treaty vote would be enormous—especially in Congress. In Washington there is currently a nonchalance about this issue, a belief that pragmatic economic considerations and the Egyptian military’s obvious desire to maintain the treaty will override ideology and emotion. That’s a mistake. In a tug of war between pragmatism and passionate principle, the odds are with the latter.
Beyond providing economic aid and generously funding American civil-society and prodemocracy NGOs, which have a big role before them, Washington can do little in Egypt except use the bully pulpit thoughtfully. The first, imperative task is to remind the Egyptian military and the country’s burgeoning political parties, as politely as possible, what overturning the treaty would mean. We want to see a lively debate in Egypt about Israel and the United States. We should expect it to be ugly. But we should also work for what would be a hugely important event for the Middle East and the Muslim world: an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty affirmed by an honestly elected Egyptian parliament, with the Muslim Brothers screaming and shouting in opposition. A vote, of course, could easily go the other way. President Obama still has some capital in Cairo, given his eventual stand against Mubarak. He should use it on this problem before we are confronted with a train wreck.
The revolt in Yemen has already complicated the Obama administration’s counterterrorist policy. It’s conceivable we could get lucky and see a democracy develop that allows sufficient federalism to keep the country’s regions happy but enough central control to ensure al Qaeda can’t successfully ally itself with a local warlord. Apart from that outside possibility, whatever happens in Yemen, the transition from Ali Abdullah Saleh’s dictatorship will take time to settle. Yemen is the least modernized Arab state. Since the 1960s, internal wars have laid the country low. If the memory of these conflicts is sufficiently alive and forbidding, if the Yemeni identity has become sufficiently solid, then another war is unlikely. Without civil war, Saudi Arabia and Iran cannot really use Yemen as an arena for going at each other.
But no matter what happens, the United States is unlikely to have a better counterterrorist relationship with a new government of Yemen than we had with Saleh. Arabs are rebelling against the police states that were our partners in the war against al Qaeda. Saleh’s police state was often an ineffectual, Janus-faced ally against Islamic terrorists who’ve found a sympathetic home in Yemen, so the current turbulence in our intelligence liaison relationship may not be catastrophic. The Obama administration is unlikely to have any great crisis of conscience in dealing with Yemen: Saleh is finished, and even the Saudis know it. Being for greater freedom and democracy in Yemen actually makes good counterterrorist sense since the only way the fractious country is going to make it peacefully through the current upheavals is if a central government forms that is sufficiently consensual—democratic—to please most people. It is by that route, not through the rise of another strongman, that we are most likely to find counterterrorist partners who don’t want their country used as a base for al Qaeda.
In Jordan, Washington is hoping that the demonstrations we’ve seen for democracy and more lawful governance don’t get out of hand. Jordan is now relatively quiet, but it could easily spark again, especially if the Syrian dictator falls and the democratic momentum in the region builds. The Jordanian-Palestinian split in Jordanian society is substantial, though perhaps not intractable. Among Palestinians, who may make up 60 percent of the population, democratic aspirations are real. The same is true, it appears, among many Jordanian tribes, but their democratic aspirations run into the countervailing fear of Palestinian rule. Jordanian-Palestinian integration is greater today than when the Hashemites had their war with the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1970. This closer association probably doesn’t yet constitute a real shared national identity, but it constitutes something that works to the advantage of the monarchy.
The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood has a real power base among the Palestinian poor and in the educated professions. It has no great love for the Hashemites, but neither does it seem to have a burning enmity. It’s pretty clear, however, that King Abdullah will become increasingly dependent upon Saudi largesse to fund the more generous, demonstration-suppressing benefits that the crown has promised, especially to his Jordanian tribal base, which is largely dependent upon the public sector and the dole. The Saudis have become the Hapsburgs of the Middle East, discouraging the growth of representative government. King Abdullah—unlike King Mohammed of Morocco, who needs no Saudi cash—will have a very hard time moving in a more democratic direction, especially if the Jordanian elite agrees with the Saudis that any real reform is a slippery slope. Hashemite monarchs have always had a certain Western appeal because of their customs and decent English educations, which have checked royal power. Still, under Saudi pressure, Jordan could become a typical Arab police state.
If Jordan starts to boil again, large street demonstrations may paralyze the Obama administration. A bloodbath in Jordan or a democratic system dominated by Palestinians would certainly make the peace process on the West Bank a less compelling issue, at least until everyone concerned could figure out the repercussions of a Jordanian upheaval.
Problems in Bahrain could also paralyze the administration. It appears now the decision by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to use the iron fist has squashed the democratic protests. Most in Washington hope that the king’s tactics will work—and won’t lead to an Iranian-fed guerrilla movement on the island.
Crown Prince Salman continues to give the impression, as does much of the Sunni Bahraini business elite, that the Khalifa family must negotiate some compromise with the Shia, who make up around 60 percent of the island’s population. But it is difficult to see how this could happen. The Saudis, who financially saved the Bahraini banking community when the democratic protests started and have again sent troops to help keep the Khalifas in power, would take a dim view of any compromise that gave the Shia real democratic power.
Much of the Bahraini Shiite elite has been arrested. They have most likely been beaten, if not worse. Pakistani mercenaries deployed shotguns against the Shiite crowds. The independent Bahraini press, which was both Sunni- and Shiite-staffed, has been shut down. So unless the crown prince can somehow perform a miracle and reopen intercommunal talks, we will have to wait and see whether the crackdown breaks the back of the Shiite opposition. Given that the Bahraini Shiite community has been fairly well organized for years, which is in part a reflection of the Bahraini Sunni elite’s un-Saudi-like tolerance, the arrests could prove devastating.
The State Department has emphasized, no doubt correctly, that the upheaval in Bahrain has not been Iranian-inspired. Nonetheless, Washington fears growing Iranian influence on the island, which has effectively made Washington an ally of King Hamad, who provides anchorage for the U.S. Fifth Fleet. If the demonstrations start again, we should expect the Shia to have a much more anti-American edge.
Syria is the one place where the Saudis are probably deeply torn, given their distaste of the ruling Alawites, Shiite schismatics, and the likelihood of Sunni rule if the Assad family falls. A Sunni Syria could, however, be democratic.
For now, dictator Bashar al-Assad is trying to use tanks and snipers to quiet the citizenry. The internal dynamics of the rebellion remain unclear. Has the revolt become sectarian, pitting the majority Sunni population against the Alawite-dominated government? Or has Bashar been able to maintain the loyalty of most Sunni military officers? Early in the tumult, Lebanese journalists reported the quick execution of Sunni military officers who refused to shoot at the mostly Sunni youths on the streets. It increasingly appears that Sunni Syria is in rebellion, that the children of the civilian Sunni middle class—the children of Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs—have joined the demonstrations. If the revolt has spread throughout Sunni Syria, then the odds of Assad and his Alawite clan surviving are small.
If the Alawites fall, the principal question will be whether the Sunni community feels indulgent towards the Alawites, who represent a little over 10 percent of the population. If not, then we can expect the Sunnis to take an awful vengeance. The odds of a Syrian democracy arising out of such carnage would be poor. More likely, a Sunni military man, or military council, will eventually seize power. (The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, badly battered by the Assad regime, by all appearances has limited appeal in mosques countrywide.) Popular pressure could rise against this rule, too—the democratic spirit is real in Syria. But the Sunni center might not back such an upheaval after a bloodletting against the Alawites. The desire for calm could be overwhelming.
If Assad falls, the Sunnis might recognize the Alawites as fellow victims of tyranny (essentially the view the Iraqi Shiite clergy took towards the Iraqi Sunni community immediately after the fall of Saddam). In that case, Syria might have a democratic chance. The Syrian national identity—an utterly fabricated sentiment dating from the 19th century—has taken on substance. It’s still an evolving concept, but it unmistakably pulls at the heart of Sunni, Christian, and Alawite Syrians. Nationalism is easily the most successful Western export to Islamic lands—it has stuck just about everywhere. Syria is a very Westernized Arab state. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the democratic ethos has infected the population.
If, however, Assad can keep the loyalty of the Sunni military class, he can probably kill his way to “stability.” The interests of the United States should be clear: We should want the Assad regime to go down. It has encouraged terrorism for over 40 years, waged war against us in Iraq through jihadist proxies, tried to develop a clandestine nuclear program imported from North Korea, been Tehran’s best ally among Arab states, and provided the Islamic Republic with a lifeline to the Lebanese Hezbollah, revolutionary Iran’s only foreign offshoot.
The fall of the Alawites would immediately isolate Hezbollah, who need the Syrians to watch their back and allow Iranian weaponry to reach them. Hezbollah would have to guard their weapon stocks and be extraordinarily sensitive to provoking the Israelis. They would likely hunker down in Lebanon and hope the final judgment of the U.N. investigation into the 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri—expected to confirm a Hezbollah role in the killing—doesn’t produce an international backlash, especially among faithful but not radical Lebanese Shiites, at home and abroad, who give money to Hezbollah because that’s what good Shiites do.
Without Syrian support, the group would have to become far better at economics. Shiite Lebanese journalists have reported that Iranian-funded construction projects in southern Lebanon have already slowed or stopped because of Tehran’s financial difficulties, largely stemming from international sanctions, exploding state subsidies, and declining oil production. Iranian and Syrian aid has been critical to Hezbollah’s budget, which must maintain an extensive social-services network as well as the military machine. The fall of Assad would likely allow other Shiite parties in Lebanon to grow in influence. His downfall would also have an effect in Iran. Each Arab dictatorship that falls sends another shock wave through the Islamic Republic, threatening to reignite the Green Movement. The fall of the Islamic Republic’s closest ally, which Tehran is reportedly now aiding with high-tech surveillance equipment, would be one powerful jolt.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration is again conflicted, this time by its commitment to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The administration put a lot into its engagement policy with Syria, hoping like Republican administrations before it to convince Damascus to support the peace process and stop supporting Hezbollah and Hamas. From Henry Kissinger to John Kerry, the Assad family has played Americans and their never-ending belief that a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace is the beginning and end of Middle Eastern policy. Despite what’s happened in the region since the tumult in Tunisia, this American reflex hasn’t stopped. The fall of Assad would convulse the peace-processing mind: Who knows what would follow him? Washington certainly fears a triumphant Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. That the odds of such a triumph are poor matters little, given Washington’s growing unease with all the unknowns of the Great Arab Revolt.
A winning American policy in Syria would already have Washington sending a powerful message to the Syrian military establishment: As long as they refuse to relinquish power, they will all be held accountable for their crimes. No expiration date. But if Assad and the Alawite regime fall, we will do business with their successors, especially if they transition to democracy. Expanded trade and natural gas exploration and development deals in an Assad-free Syria would be a priority.
If President Obama continues his present course, anti-American sentiment in Syria will likely skyrocket, which is a strategic shame since the United States has a chance of improving its standing in a democratic Syria, given how much anti-American vitriol the Assads have pumped out. My enemy’s enemy might, just possibly, become a friend. In most of the Arab Middle East, where the United States has allied itself with dictatorships, the democratic wave is likely to produce the opposite result. The one thing we can be certain of: If Assad hangs on, he’ll be even closer to the Iranians than before, and the Syrian police state, which is already sinister, will become even worse.
President Obama could make a difference in Syria. He unquestionably could save the United States from a protracted struggle in Libya by putting something more lethal than CIA intelligence-collection sneakers on the ground. Washington could do more good in Libya than anywhere else because we are now engaged there militarily, and we and the Europeans can influence what comes after Muammar Qaddafi. Boots on the ground can make friends as well as enemies. They always make people listen more attentively. Although President Obama, like most of the American left, recoils from the idea that military power is indispensible to the conduct of foreign affairs, the Middle East may give him a painful primer if Qaddafi ends up making the United States look pathetically weak.
Libya should be the most urgent issue at the White House. Then Syria. Then Egypt. Then Yemen, Bahrain, and Jordan. But before the president goes to bed at night, understandably worn out thinking about these countries, he can think about Saudi Arabia and how to deal with an oil giant that uses its immense wealth to reinforce the authoritarian status quo throughout the region.
The Arab Spring hasn’t really touched Saudi Arabia and probably won’t until devout citizens in the streets of Mecca and Medina start demanding greater representation. That could happen, faster than Westerners might think, if the annual pilgrimage, the hajj, starts carrying to Arabia faithful Muslims who believe that God has no objection to voting. The Najd—the heartland of the country’s intolerant Wahhabi faith—has traditionally used the sword and piles of cash to ensure intellectual conformity within the Saudi realm. These tactics may prove less successful if the democratic wave brings lasting representative government to the Middle East, especially to the intellectual heavyweights—Egypt, Iraq, and Syria.
The Saudis will continue to cause considerable mischief funding the forces of reaction. Since 1979 and the Islamic revolution in Iran, they’ve enthusiastically funded Islamists worldwide. They will surely increase their funding to Islamists uncertain about the democratic promise. They will probably turn their own country into a much more rigorous police state, increasingly intolerant of reformist sentiment.
Needless to say, Saudi King Abdullah will not likely forgive President Obama for giving up on Mubarak. But once the democratic spirit got loose in the region, the United States and the Saudi Kingdom were on a collision course. Our relationship had been largely defined by hypocrisy: We didn’t talk about liberal democracy, and we pretended not to notice that the richly endowed Wahhabi religious establishment was spreading a virulent anti-Western orthodoxy far and wide. It’s worthwhile to return to President Obama’s first trip to Saudi Arabia, when Obama obviously thought he was visiting a land—a royal family—that defined in great part the Muslim identity. The president spoke about the many “mutual interests” between Saudi Arabia and the United States. (Beyond oil and preventing a nuclear Iran, it’s pretty hard now to see any shared interests.) Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world was in part an outreach to King Abdullah and the Saudi establishment, which the president saw as a legitimate expression of the Islamic faith.
But we are witnessing in the Middle East the collapse of an order where the Saudis gained heft because they’d aligned themselves with the only identity that the Middle East’s Westernized dictators couldn’t stamp out. Islam under the Saudis was fundamentalist and aggressive but intellectually static. The Great Arab Revolt will bring competition—more so than Islam has seen since pan-Arabism thundered across the region after World War II. The great Russian writer on the Middle East Alexei Vassiliev once wrote: “It is difficult to say whether [Saudi Arabia’s] combination of modern and traditional elements, of Western and Arab (Islamic) civilizations, will prove to be an organic synthesis. . . . Any serious change or social unrest in the country may have far-reaching international consequences.” The synthesis isn’t going to work if democracy gains ground among Muslims. The Saudis have a lot of cash. But money doesn’t always buy you loyalty and love.
The “special” Saudi-American relationship survived 9/11. The spread of democracy throughout the Middle East will be much more challenging, for them and us.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover Institution Press).