For the second time in two years, an Egyptian autocrat has been deposed. In Syria, another embattled tyrant – this one robustly supported by Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia – looks like he might hang on. Across the Muslim world, the political future hangs in the balance.
In some quarters, the prospects for progress and liberalization are renewed; the Egyptian army may not be a champion of democracy, but its intervention probably prevented a darker future there. Egyptians at least have another chance. In other quarters – not just Syria but Iraq and in western Africa – the immediate prospects for liberty are bad and most likely to get worse.
Our president tells us the tide of war in the region is receding. But if there is a tide to such things, it is both ebbing and flowing, moving with great force and violence. Barack Obama would prefer simply to tide out the storm.
Except that these events are not acts of nature but acts of men; they are politics, not weather. America might act to shape the course of events; it could, at this moment where the outcome is up for grabs, perhaps have a decisive effect.
With Egyptians taking to the streets to oust the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi, Secretary of State John Kerry is channeling his inner Jimmy Carter, going the extra mile to try to broker an Israeli-Palestinian accord of some kind. As Walter Russell Mead observes this may be a moment when Israelis as so worried about the tsunamis of change across the region that they are ready to make concessions on settlements and the other issues that so obsess this administration. But this is to mistake diplomatic minutiae for matters of strategic importance.
The Obama administration’s record in Middle East matters amounts to willful negligence. There is a large, growing, and increasingly violent contest that will determine political future of the most important part of the Muslim world. Not even the rise of China as a global great power will do more to determine the course of this century. Indeed, the contest is of great interest to the Chinese and to all of East Asia, which relies – and will for the foreseeable future – heavily on the region’s energy supplies.
At the moment of turning, we are absent without leave. This is a moral, as well as a strategic and political failing, for which we are bound to pay. Our friends will shun us and think us weak; our adversaries will agree and continue to exploit an opportunity they never expected.
Napoleon once said, when China wakes, the world will shake. America is going to sleep and that may shake the world even more.