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06.18.12

Leslie H. Gelb on Egypt, Syria: Take a Deep Breath, America

Before jumping into Egypt or Syria, the U.S. needs to think about what comes next, next, and next. And then, don’t jump, writes Leslie H. Gelb.

Only American foreign-policy experts who know only “policy” and nothing about actual countries would dare to choose sides in Mideast killings and turmoil. Only such experts would dare to suggest U.S. military intervention as the solution. And they do. But to stare Mideast realities in the face is to understand that we don’t understand where events are leading—save toward more conflict and more blood.

No one will really “win” the Egyptian presidential vote now being counted. If Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, comes out on top, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi won’t accept the results, and vice versa. In any event, whoever prevails, the military will retain control, at least for a while. On Sunday, the military issued a constitutional decree asserting the necessary authorities. As likely as not, turmoil will return to the streets, and this time, it probably won’t be limited to Tahrir Square in Cairo. There could be prolonged unrest or much more. If Morsi prevails, the military will clamp down on him, and chaos is almost certain to erupt. In any event, Egyptian-Israeli relations will continue to worsen, and shootings can’t be excluded.

You’d have to be delusional to argue that Washington should choose sides here. The corrupt and brutal military is despised by most Egyptians, it seems. The Muslim Brotherhood and Muslim extremists frighten the hell out of those good people who won our hearts in Tahrir Square a year ago. The military can’t keep power forever, but when does forever end? And if the Islamists reign, the peace treaty with Israel will fall, whatever Muslim Brotherhood leaders now promise. It has to be remembered that for decades, they’ve been preaching Israel’s destruction. Without that treaty, the whole Mideast region reverts to its old razor’s edge.

If anything, the Syrian hellhole is worse. The Hoover Institution’s Fouad Ajami, who knows more about this region than anyone I know, sees Syria descending into devastating civil war in his new book, The Syrian Rebellion. Be realistic: the ruling minority Alawites hate and fear the 75 percent Sunni majority, and vice versa in spades. Bashar al-Assad, the ruler, knows, along with his co-religionists, that if they lose power, the Sunnis in all probability will slaughter them. So the Alawites will fight to the bitter end. There is no compromise for them or for the Sunni rebels who realize that if they lay down their arms, they too will lose their heads. So, forget about a brokered deal.

There is the usual group of senators and humanitarian interventionists who’ve never met a humanitarian intervention they didn’t like, who now propose U.S. airstrikes and more. But I’ve yet to hear actual military experts maintain that such strikes could do more than kill more Syrians of all stripes. And what of Syria’s potent air defenses? Oh, sure, the interventionists insist, we’ll take care of those easily. But what happens when airstrikes don’t end the fighting? Do we insert ground troops? These interventionists never seem to think about what comes after failure, though when it comes, they always propose more force. Probably, the only action that might work is to set up safe zones on Syria’s borders with its neighbors for refugee protection, not military action.

Troubles lurk in “liberated” Libya as well. Having helped the Libyans rid themselves of the evil Colonel Gaddafi, democratic-loving Europeans and Americans and humanitarians worldwide now find themselves confronting a Libya in dictatorial free fall, run by more than 60 different militias. Boy, have we helped the Libyan people into a new, free, and democratic life. Let us see how much of the oil-rich and strategically located country comes to be dominated by al Qaeda and its allies. Libya’s liberators never thought for a moment about the effects of their triumphs on the neighbors. The Tuareg mercenaries who were helping Gaddafi took themselves and the advanced weapons into their native Mali and have declared a new Islamic state in the north. Did the liberators ever even hear of the Tuareg?

It would be sheer folly to think that Washington could gain control over these events or even exercise decisive influence. Only those foreign-policy experts who don’t know the region could believe otherwise.

Never stop worrying about Yemen and Bahrain either. Al Qaeda still has reliable bases in Yemen to trouble the region, despite U.S. drone and commando attacks. As for Bahrain, home to our Fifth Fleet in the Gulf, a small minority of Sunnis rule ruthlessly over a vast majority of Shiites. Sheer numbers and injustice suggest more trouble is inevitable. Only Tunisia shows some promise, though not much.

It would be sheer folly to think that Washington could gain control over these events or even exercise decisive influence. Only those foreign-policy experts who don’t know the region could believe otherwise.

Another consideration has not gained sufficient notice: the Mideast has become a diplomatic (and sometimes arms-sales) battleground between Washington on the one hand and Russia and China on the other. That the big powers are on opposite sides of many Mideast conflicts like Syria makes it all the more impossible for the United States to gain the upper hand, let alone get anything useful done. Washington will have to straighten out relations with these major powers before it has a chance of exercising effective power in their region.

Whatever the experts tell them, our leaders will have to come to terms with some hard truths. First, Americans have to understand that they should not enthrone democracy as an end in itself. Free votes can supplant villains with worse villains, corruption, and brutality with tyranny and enslavement of women. Just as the ends do not justify the means, the means are not always superior to the ends. Second, diplomatic compromises are often unattainable between those who hate each other, between those who know they must rule or die, and between those who’d rather die than see the rulers continue to rule. (For heaven’s sake, Republicans and Democrats in the United States of America can’t even compromise.) Even if by some miracle, some kind of deal can be mediated, it often doesn’t last. Just look at Sudan. Third, military force may succeed in removing bad guys from power—as we did with Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan—but it does not ensure being able to stabilize, let alone democratize, a country that’s never known peace or democracy and cannot yet let go of old hatreds.

So, let’s do what reasonably can be done. Let’s call upon the parties in all these countries not to squander lives, for their own later benefit should they come to power. Let’s not choose sides, for we know not who will win. We have to be prepared to deal with victors as well as the vanquished. Meanwhile, let’s be working with the wealthy Arab oil neighbors for the days when quiet may come so that we can all contribute to clearing the rubble of these terrible events to come—and providing the people, winners and losers, with some hope.