Thursday, August 22, 2013

Egypt, Syria, & the Eternal Disappointment of Jennifer Rubin

Returning from a week offline, something akin to a postmodern monastic experience, I have been catching up on politics and world events only to learn what anyone could have predicted two weeks ago: Syria and Egypt are horrific places to be at this moment. The question we are asking daily is quite straightforward: what is America's responsibility in these nations, whose governments by any reasonable assessment have abrogated their right to sovereignty by slaughtering innocent civilians in great numbers.

Straightforward questions bear the attractive qualities of focus and concision, but they're only useful if the answers are suitably complex. That is particularly true of foreign policy issues, where contingent factors are so numerous and significant that they dwarf the kind of influence people tend to associate with American power or the American presidency. "Superpower" is one of the most dangerously abused words in the American political lexicon, conveying a false notion of global strength and control. That connotation is a relic of a Cold War mentality that was itself not true. America could rarely do what it wanted to do or what it professed to do even during the period of its nuclear dominance in the 1950s.

All of which brings me to this point about Egypt and Syria: when a bunch of political Monday morning quarterbacks complain about foreign policy inaction, my skeptic's antennae go up. When people start writing with frightening certainty about what Obama ought to do in Syria and Egypt, it is far too easy for them to imagine a course of events that is strikingly benign compared with the present blood and darkness in those places. Here's a quick example from a Meet The Press ten years back of how that kind of speculation can get dangerous:
Vice President Cheney: Now, I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators. And the president's made it very clear that our purpose there is, if we are forced to do this, will in fact be to stand up a government that's representative of the Iraqi people, hopefully democratic due respect for human rights, and it, obviously, involves a major commitment by the United States, but we think it's a commitment worth making. And we don't have the option anymore of simply laying back and hoping that events in Iraq will not constitute a threat to the U.S. Clearly, 12 years after the Gulf War, we're back in a situation where he does constitute a threat.

Mr. Russert: If your analysis is not correct, and we're not treated as liberators, but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties?

Vice President Cheney: Well, I don't think it's likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators. I've talked with a lot of Iraqis in the last several months myself, had them to the White House. The president and I have met with them, various groups and individuals, people who have devoted their lives from the outside to trying to change things inside Iraq. And like Kanan Makiya who's a professor at Brandeis, but an Iraqi, he's written great books about the subject, knows the country intimately, and is a part of the democratic opposition and resistance. The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want to the get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that.
So I am not particularly keen on pundits who have pronounced with absolute certainty how Obama has totally blown opportunities to oust Assad, save Egypt, encourage the Arab Spring, and remake the Middle East. I should qualify that I'm the furthest thing from an expert on the Middle East and I'm more than happy to read nuanced criticism of Obama's foreign policy, but anything that smacks of neoconservative "clarity" is difficult to stomach. So when Bret Stephens, a member of the Wall Street Journal's opinion page conservative brute squad, writes that US intervention in Egypt to quickly assist the army in defeating the Muslim Brotherhood is essential, I'm skeptical. When it's couched in language like this, I'm super skeptical:
It would be nice to live in a world in which we could conduct a foreign policy that aims at the realization of our dreams—peace in the Holy Land, a world without nuclear weapons, liberal democracy in the Arab world. A better foreign policy would be conducted to keep our nightmares at bay: stopping Iran's nuclear bid, preventing Syria's chemical weapons from falling into terrorist hands, and keeping the Brotherhood out of power in Egypt. But that would require an administration that knew the difference between an attitude and a policy.
Pursuing a foreign policy that "aims at the realization of our dreams" is one of the scarier formulations I've heard. It is exactly what Dick Cheney and company did in 2003, and what a bang-up job that ended up being. Stephens, I should note, deserves some small acknowledgment for consistency since he has also advocated for intervention virtually everywhere else, including Darfur. But that's just the point... Stephens believes that American military power has immeasurable reach and power, and it's ability to overcome military challenges is matched by its ability to transform social and political realities. Yikes.

Even less credible is John Bolton, George W. Bush's ambassador to the UN who, not coincidentally, hated the UN. Bolton has since made a living at the AEI grooming his mustache and criticizing Obama. He's also discussed running for president in 2016, a prospect with much the same hope that I have of winning the Kentucky Derby. Bolton just wrote an op-ed in the WSJ demanding that the Obama administration side with the generals in Egypt. He offers three reasons, which I can sum up: 1. the Muslim Brotherhood wouldn't uphold the Camp David Accords with Israel; 2. if Egyptian forces lose control of the Sinai peninsula, Hamas and other terror networks will occupy it and smuggle arms to Gaza and Syria; 3. the Suez Canal must remain open.

This is more pragmatic than Stephens, assuredly, but it's not an analysis worthy of the specific moment. I am hard pressed to conceive of any democratic movement taking place in Egypt that would not endanger all three of these strategic grails. Any newly elected government might reconsider Egypt's commitment to the Camp David Accords; any new government's military policies might weaken the Sinai; and any new government might restrict access to the Suez. Bolton is simply delineating a recipe for perpetual military control of Egypt. He (like other neoconservative dreamers out there) might speak of grand ideas of liberty and freedom, or waiting for a moment when the military in Egypt can hand off power to a democratic regime which promises to respect a relationship with Israel and maintain crucial American interests. But that is the absurd idealist underbelly to Bolton's faux realpolitik. Observers of the real world don't expect Middle Eastern autocracies to suddenly embrace democracy and reject Islamist traditions or policies.

Cynicism may best describe my attitude toward Stephens and Bolton, but I have reserved the better part of my disdain for Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post. Irresponsible, dim, and a knee-jerk Obama hater, Rubin is all the more pathetic because she is hopelessly unaware of her own deficiencies. She just published a column on Syria titled, "Obama's foreign policy leads to hundreds killed by WMDs" in which she argues that Obama's "spineless" refusal to intervene in Syria brings the moral culpability for their deaths to the doors of the White House. Here's how she concludes (italics hers):
The part about national security that isolationists don’t understand is that sooner or later we must act. But by delaying, excuse-mongering and refusing to act sooner rather than later we erode our moral standing, allow great evils to unfold and make eventual action much more complicated. Syria is the quintessential example of why the Obama-Rand Paul national security view is dangerous and leads to heinous results.
This is both wrong and stupid. First, there may be plenty of folly in isolationism, but the wisdom it does offer us is the understanding that we don't always have to act and that sometimes it is better not to. (See Cheney, Dick above.) The long drawn out struggle in Syria between Assad and the rebels might have had any number of outcomes that would not have demanded American intervention. Even now, when some of the horrors of what has happened there have been unearthed, it is unclear what options the US has for intervention. Rubin is operating within the same fantasy world as Stephens, a world in which the United States can do what it wants in other places and therefore it can be an irrepressible force for democratic progress in the world so long as it maintains a strong moral compass. If the impact of foreign policy were based on moral intentions, it would be a hell of a lot easier. It's not, so building foreign policy based on Jennifer Rubin's assessment of American "moral standing" is ridiculous.

Second, lumping Rand Paul and Obama together is a foolish slander. Obama was against the war in Iraq and determined to end the war in Afghanistan for pretty sound reasons, but he is not an isolationist. He just has other priorities. Rand Paul doesn't want America to do anything anywhere because he thinks the government is evil.

Third, like other supporters of the Iraq War and the surge, Rubin has carefully avoided acknowledging the most glaring of the contingent forces restricting US involvement in the Middle East. Had we not blown somewhere between $2 and 6 trillion dollars on the Iraq War and exhausted the American public's tolerance for war, intervention in Arab Spring nations might be more politically viable and financially sustainable. How (and why) would Obama attempt another major military operation when Republicans in Congress refuse to raise taxes to pay for the last war? Or demand dollar for dollar reductions in the budget from domestic entitlement programs without touching the defense budget? Simple arithmetic and passing awareness of Republican Congressional insanity would tell us that every dollar Obama would spend in Syria or Egypt would be paid for by reducing Medicare, Social Security, food stamps, or Pell grants. (Now, Rubin has suggested that the US intervention in Iraq contributed to the Arab Spring, but that is hard to justify with any evidence.)

Fourth, what is Rubin's plan for ending violence in Syria?!? Her grandstanding about intervention makes no mention of what work would be required to build a coalition, launch the invasion, and sustain a stable government the West (and Israel) would be satisfied with. How does Rubin plan on paying for what would almost certainly be nation building? What will America's moral standing look like if, even after an American deposing of Assad and the building of a new government, the only viable options are a military dictator who responds to Western leverage or an Islamist regime supported by the people?—in other words, what will Rubin say if Syria presents the same dilemma as Egypt?

Read her columns... she offers nothing but bland condemnations free of subtlety or analysis. That is probably why Patrick Pexton, the former ombudsman of the Post, offered this free advice to Jeff Bezos about the state of the paper. Splitting the news up into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, he dedicates all of Ugly to Rubin and why she should be fired.

But if your looking for better material to read on the Middle East, try these guys.

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