Dumb and Dumber: When Neocons and Obama Liberals Agree
How neocons and Obama liberals have created catastrophe by consensus in the Middle East
Errors by the party in power can get America into trouble; real catastrophes require consensus.
Rarely have both parties been as unanimous about a development overseas as they have in their shared enthusiasm for the so-called Arab Spring during the first months of 2011. Republicans vied with the Obama Administration in their zeal for the ouster of Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak and in championing the subsequent NATO intervention against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Both parties saw themselves as having been vindicated by events. The Obama Administration saw its actions as proof that soft power in pursuit of humanitarian goals offered a new paradigm for foreign-policy success. And the Republican establishment saw a vindication of the Bush freedom agenda.
“Revolutions are sweeping the Middle East and everyone is a convert to George W. Bush’s freedom agenda,” Charles Krauthammer observed in February 2011. “Now that revolution has spread from Tunisia to Oman,” Krauthammer added, “the [Obama] administration is rushing to keep up with the new dispensation, repeating the fundamental tenet of the Bush Doctrine that Arabs are no exception to the universal thirst for dignity and freedom.” And William Kristol exulted, “Helping the Arab Spring through to fruition might contribute to an American Spring, one of renewed pride in our country and confidence in the cause of liberty.”
They were all wrong. Just two years later, the foreign-policy establishment has fractured in the face of a Syrian civil war that threatens to metastasize into neighboring Iraq and Lebanon and an economic collapse in Egypt that has brought the largest Arab country to the brink of state failure. Some Republican leaders, including Sen. John McCain and Weekly Standard editor Kristol, demand American military intervention to support Syria’s Sunni rebels. But Daniel Pipes, the dean of conservative Middle East analysts, wrote on April 11 that “Western governments should support the malign dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad,” because “Western powers should guide enemies to stalemate by helping whichever side is losing, so as to prolong their conflict.” If Assad appears to be winning, he added later, we should support the rebels. The respected strategist Edward Luttwak contends that America should “leave bad enough alone” in Syria and turn its attention away from the Middle East—to Asia. The Obama Administration meanwhile is waffling about what might constitute a “red line” for intervention and what form such intervention might take.
The once-happy bipartisan consensus has now shrunk to the common observation that all the available choices are bad. It could get much worse. Western efforts have failed to foster a unified leadership among the Syrian rebels, and jihadi extremists appear to be in control of the Free Syrian Army inside Syria. Syria’s war is “creating the conditions for a renewed conflict, dangerous and complex, to explode in Iraq. If Iraq is not shielded rapidly and properly, it will definitely slip into the Syrian quagmire,” warns Arab League Ambassador Nassif Hitti. Iraq leaders are talking of civil war and eventual partition. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, meanwhile, warned on May 1, “Syria has real friends in the region, and the world will not let Syria fall into the hands of America, Israel or takfiri [radical islamist] groups,” threatening in effect to turn the civil war into a regional conflict that has the potential to destabilize Turkey. And the gravest risk to the region remains the likelihood that “inherent weaknesses of state and society in Egypt reach a point where the country’s political, social and economic systems no longer function,” as Gamal Abuel Hassan wrote on May 28. Libya is fracturing, and the terrorists responsible for the September 2012 Benghazi attack are operating freely.
This is a tragic outcome, in the strict sense of the term, for it is hard to imagine how it could have turned out otherwise.
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In January 2012, after the first hopes for Arab democracy had faded, former Bush Administration official Elliot Abrams insisted:
The neocons, democrats, and others who applauded the Arab uprisings were right, for what was the alternative? To applaud continued oppression? To instruct the rulers on better tactics, the way Iran is presumably lecturing (and arming) Syria’s Bashar al-Assad? Such a stance would have made a mockery of American ideals, would have failed to keep these hated regimes in place for very long, and would have left behind a deep, almost ineradicable anti-Americanism.
The neoconservatives mistook a tubercular fever for the flush of youth in the Arab revolts, to be sure, but they read the national mood right—as did the Obama Administration.
There were dissenters, of course. Daniel Pipes warned against pushing Islamists toward elections, writing in 2005:
When politically adept totalitarians win power democratically, they do fix potholes and improve schools—but only as a means to transform their countries in accordance with their utopian visions. This generalization applies most clearly to the historical cases (Adolf Hitler in Germany after 1933, Salvador Allende in Chile after 1970) but it also appears valid for the current ones.
Henry Kissinger excoriated the Obama Administration for toppling Mubarak, arguing that no other force in Egypt could stabilize the country. Francis Fukuyama broke with his erstwhile neoconservative colleagues in 2004, after hearing Vice President Dick Cheney and columnist Charles Krauthammer announce the beginning of an American-led “unipolar era.” “All of these people around me were cheering wildly,” Fukuyama remembers. “All of my friends had taken leave of reality.”
It is a widespread misimpression (reinforced by conspiracy theorists seeking the malign influence of the “Israel Lobby”) that the neoconservative movement is in some way a Jewish thing. On the contrary, it is a distinctly American thing. As the born-again Methodist George W. Bush said in 2003, “Peoples of the Middle East share a high civilization, a religion of personal responsibility, and a need for freedom as deep as our own. It is not realism to suppose that one-fifth of humanity is unsuited to liberty; it is pessimism and condescension, and we should have none of it.” The Catholic neoconservative and natural-law theorist Michael Novak put it just as passionately in his 2004 book The Universal Hunger for Liberty: “The hunger for liberty has only slowly been felt among Muslims. That hunger is universal, even when it is latent, for the preconditions for it slumber in every human breast.”
Top Israeli military and intelligence analysts are divided over which side to back in Syria’s civil war