Scrambling for a simple standard to measure events in Egypt and across the Arab world, the blogosphere and the airwaves have been full of references to 1979. That point of reference is probably more apt than imagined, for much more happened that year than just the Iranian revolution. It was also the year of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Sunni extremists, and the year that Saddam Hussein assumed overt power in Iraq. In sum, it was a year when the political tectonic plates of the region shifted violently and profoundly.
It was a shift that was rapidly reflected in American strategy making and military posture. The “Carter Doctrine,” nominally a reaction to the Soviets and expressed as a willingness to defend the region against outside influence, quickly morphed into a broader doctrine of opposing any hostile bid for hegemony – be it local or external. The United States began to move from being an “off-shore balancer,” content to work entirely through regional regimes, to being ever more deeply and directly involved. And the ad hoc “Joint Readiness Deployment Task Force” became, in 1981, U.S. Central Command.
While the region’s tremors have not been as sudden as in 1979, the ground is rumbling from North Africa to South Asia. The United States has itself delivered a number of the jolts – particularly to Iraq – as have al Qaeda and its flock of “associated movements.” Iran’s revolutionary regime has proven itself alternatively shaky and able to shake, expending the remnants of the shah’s conventional forces (and hundreds of thousands of militiamen) against Iraq but since then through proxies like Hezbollah and the increased effort to acquire nuclear weapons. The region’s other regimes, such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, have obvious vulnerabilities.
More disturbing than President Obama’s tepid and ambiguous responses to the demonstrations in Egypt (which is all that he can or should do in the near-term) is the lack of longer-range policy goals, let alone anything like a how-to strategy. And the administration’s plan, ensured by the most recent announcements of Pentagon budget cuts, is to shrink the U.S. military posture. In sum, at the moment when the movement to create a new order in the region is accelerating – and who can seriously think that the likelihood of violence is diminishing, will be self-regulating, or can be met only with “soft power?” – the United States appears to be backing away. It is one thing to acknowledge that we cannot determine or dictate the outcome of the changes coming to the greater Middle East, quite another to act as though we don’t care enough to continue to exert a shaping influence.
Barack Obama wanted to focus on “reconstructing” America rather than reconstructing the world, particularly after the trials of the Bush years, the Muslim world. And his method – with the 2009 Afghanistan reviews providing the clearest examples – has generally been to avoid making any decisions until the last moment and then limiting commitments to the point where they undercut the value of the decision itself. But things that cannot go on eventually do not.
There is a cautionary lesson here for the Republican Party. The party’s 2010 revival, of course, had nothing to do with foreign policy, and congressional leaders are naturally devoting their immediate energies to fulfilling their domestic mandate. And thus far they’ve been sensibly supporting the administration’s efforts on Egypt. But conservatives, especially those who would be president, should ponder the 1979-come-again moment at length – including its connections to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 moment.