The Clueless Americans in the Revoutionary Middle East

I never thought that the day would come when I would call the wealthiest country in the world, and the country with the most powerful army in the world, “pitiful.” I also never thought that I would call the citizens of that country, the nation state with the best university system in the world, “clueless” about the Middle East.


But, that day has come. For, clueless Americans have made their country pitiful.


The obvious question that then arises is: With hundreds of television channels, thousands of newspapers and journals, and hundreds of thousands of bloggers available to them, how did Americans become clueless?


One can say one thing about this syndrome with certainty. It is certainly not new. However, in the past, Americans were able to cover up their ignorance of the culture and politics of the Middle East through the use of bluster and clever spin.


For that reason, and contrary to what his critics say, America’s foreign policy weaknesses today are not solely the product of President Obama’s behaviour…nor are they the result of the policies adopted by one political party.


In part, this ignorance is the product of a refusal to learn the lessons of the past. In part it is also the product of a refusal to learn what and how other cultures think, and why those raised in those cultures behave differently than Americans. And in part, it is the product of simple laziness and arrogance.


The process finally reached its current apex only after enormous effort and the expenditure of great treasure, when America received its greatest wish, and it became the world’s only superpower.


However, despite all that investment it has become apparent that the US was vastly unprepared for the role that it had sought so assiduously. To make matters worse, too many of its political leaders and civil service policy-makers assumed that the country’s treasury of values, attitudes and assumptions would nonetheless provide sufficient guidance for it to play the role. For that reason, even after horrendous errors in judgment were made they seem not to have been willing to expend any further effort to learn what went wrong, and why.


What made it ride at the top of the world political heap even more precarious was that the US also assumed that because it had become the world’s sole superpower, it could also be the world’s hegemon—doing what it wanted, when it wanted and in the way it wanted to..


I have always found it noteworthy that all the American so-called “think tanks” specializing in foreign policy always place designing policies that further “American interests” at the head of their mission statement. It is as though they believe that they can determine what is good for the United States without taking into account how other nations might react to those supposed interests.


All the arrogant assumptions I have just mentioned form the denoument to a story that began in a very different way. For it was only with great reluctance that the United States placed itself in the position from where it would eventually tumble into the role of being a world super-power.


For almost a century and a half, it much preferred to bathe itself in isolationism, in the belief that, by standing aloof, it could be a model for others; and, no less importantly, imported foreign influences could only contaminate and undermine its “more perfect union.”


World events, though, and especially its self-felt need to save the known world by participating in the first and second world wars, eventually put paid to America’s isolationism.


However, even after it became a major world player, an underlying desire to withdraw from the messier and uglier aspects of world diplomacy remained. The current, heated debate on whether to attack Syria is the product of a renewed desire to return to seemingly simpler times that were less nationally exhausting and less costly in lives and public wealth.


Way back in the last century, the country’s leaders did overcome their hesitancy to participate in what many of its citizens continued to perceive as morally-repugnant behaviour because the US had acquired what appeared to be unrivalled domestic economic strength. That strength, when used to influence events abroad created a feeling of power. And a feeling of power, once acquired, becomes addictive.


Like many others in its position, the US had edged only very slowly into its addiction. Its first addict’s high came with the country’s successful participation in the First World War. As often happens with those on the path to being permanently hooked, though, the US first shied away from the heady feelings that it had experienced in the wake of its participation in that conflict. In the 1920s, 30s and early 40s, it was common for Americans to look down with disdain on the countries of the Old World; and so the belief in isolationism returned in force.


But America’s experience after it finally entered World War II proved to be too much of a draw. As the only country to the conflict that had not already stretched its resources to the full, the US was the only nation that could change the course of battle on two widely-separated fronts at the same time. And once it showed that it was capable of doing so, it was immediately anointed by the other, exhausted, Western nations as their leader.


America’s first moves as a super-power—leading the free nations to victory in World War II and inaugurating the brilliantly-conceived Marshall Plan—were so hugely successful that they not only reinforced the burgeoning addiction to power, they also provided the US with a feel-good, seemingly-morally-impressive, legally-based and emotionally-stirring narrative that enabled it to deny that an addiction had actually set in.


The central theme of that narrative was that the US was acting in accordance with a moral code that was superior to that of any other nation…and so, only the US, with its allies in tow, was morally equipped and able to use its economic and military power for good.


That “good” was perceived to be the advancement and propagation of the belief, which arose during the European Enlightenment and the writing of the US Constitution, that all humans have inalienable rights that demand permanent protection.


In many ways this secular narrative bore many resemblances to the three similar, fervent, Christian religious, “great awakenings” that had swept the Unite States in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.


Like many canonized manifestos, however, this new, secular one was deeply flawed. Among other things, from the outset, it set up a permanent, if irregularly-expressed conflict between Americans’ stated values and their country’s national interests.


For example, one of the prime stated aims of the manifesto—and a prime American political value—is the self-felt need to propagate the formation of democratic governments everywhere in the world. However, once some of those governments were formed, the US then put all its efforts into undermining them.


For example, the popular, democratically-elected government of Iranian leader Mohammed Mosaddegh was overthrown in 1953 by the US and Britain because Mosaddegh wanted to reduce the absolute power of the Shah. The US and Britain feared that if that happened, British Petroleum’s monopoly position in the Iranian oil fields would be affected.


In other words, as happened later in other places such as Chile, American leaders sometimes came to the belief that in order to foster American interests, democracy, the supposedly supreme American political value, would have to take second place in the American list of political concerns.


Nonetheless, despite all the “exceptions” that had to be explained post facto, the standard narrative created in the wake of World War II is still widely accepted and has remained largely intact. Probably the most important reason why this is so is that the model in its original pristine form, still appears to many to be the best reasoned response to the dilemma of how best to counter those international crises that have led to extremes of death and destruction in the recent past. Despite its now-proven flaws, it still maintains a strong hold on many because no competitive alternative has as yet been uncovered.


Canonization of that narrative came about because, in the immediate post-war period, the storyline was particularly appealing to that generation that had just lived through a brutal, extended war. Moreover, its members were also facing the twin threats of Communism’s attempts at world domination and the potential of a nuclear holocaust.


The model, based on the World War II experience, posits that by massing of all the industrial, economic, diplomatic and political resources that alliances of free countries can bring to bear, evil can be defeated, and its practitioners killed or made to surrender. Once those practicing evil ways have been eliminated, it is argued, the society in which the evildoers had once thrived can be fashioned into a modern, enlightened nation-state by being flooded with aid. The example always used is, of course, the Marshall plan.


The central dogma upon which the model is based holds that nations seeking the best for their citizens should pursue modernism. Modernism, produced by rapidly-evolving technology, industrialization and economic growth, it is argued, creates a strong middle class that then, as in the case of Japan, South Korea and the Philippines demands democracy as its system of rule. Those free elections and popular rule then become a vaccination against evil returning.


However, as have I already noted, very soon after it became American dogma, that model was found to be wanting. On the one hand, it encouraged the US to consider military action with the intent to install democracy in a given enemy country—not diplomacy—as a viable and realistic first option when international problems arose. Not only that, just as frequently, the model was ignored when events such as the popular revolts in Poznan, Budapest and Prague broke out.


It is noteworthy that, since World War II, the US has been involved in more than 30 military operations. However, very few have had the effect originally intended. One of the first joint military operations, the war in Korea, led to a ceasefire and the international acceptance of North Korea, which is arguably the single most evil country in the world today.


Many other later military interventions—large and small—in places like Beirut, Viet Nam and Mogadishu, were military and political disasters.


No less importantly, the intensity with which the America’s post World War II dogma was held, and its division of the world into allies and “evil empires,” also had dangerous domestic side effects such as the manner in which it polarized of American domestic public opinion. Early on, savage domestic virtual bloodletting over the question “Who lost China?,” ended up destroying an entire generation of capable American diplomats with expertise in Asian cultures.


And soon after, even more innocent lives were disrupted by the extraordinarily brutal experience of the McCarthy witch hunts. The so-called “Moral Majority” witch hunts and today’s Tea Party policy blockades are the latest examples of the same syndrome.


Another central feature of the model was a belief that American policy-makers could determine when regime change in other countries, enforced by the US, was morally and politically advisable. However, all the bungled attempts at regime change around the world should have been enough to prove to one and all that the perceptions of America’s “best and brightest” foreign policy thinkers who had been brought up to sanctify the defeat-the-enemy-first model unquestioningly, could be faulty.


I also think it is worth noting that, if nothing else, the Cuban missile crisis was useful because, thankfully, no one won that showdown. However, even more usefully, the episode did highlight for one and all that for a nation to become an effective, competitive superpower it has little choice but to accept that it has to move slowly and usually fitfully along a learning curve that cannot be replaced by a simple intellectual or mathematical formula that can be discerned in advance.


In other words, America, like all great powers that have come before it can only discover how to behave in world forums by learning through experience. And that experience can only come by interacting with countries and societies that disagree with it.


Unfortunately, just as America was in the process of understanding and internalizing that lesson, tragedy struck. At the very moment when, after decades of trial and error, America had finally learned more or less how to compete successfully with its sole competitor as a super-power, the Soviet Union collapsed.


The US was then left totally unprepared to play the new role that had been thrust upon it—that of being the world’s only super-power. Without a strong competitor to challenge it, hubris set in…big time. For more than a decade, especially during the 1990s, Washington felt itself to be politically, economically and militarily invincible. Worse still, because it no longer feared Soviet might, the United States retreated into a form of foreign policy intellectual isolationism in which aggressive advocacy in support of established positions replaced cogent debate about the impact that new social and political processes might have.


The result was that, from the late 1980s onwards, the US also began to ignore some of the long term effects that were becoming apparent in the foreign policies it was adopting. For example, while Russia was writhing in the political and economic agony that had accompanied the collapse of Communism, instead of following the magnanimous principles that had underlain the Marshall plan, the US arrogantly demeaned and insulted Russia time and again. It was a scene that a minor KGB official named Vladimir Putin would never forget.


No less significantly the US became oblivious to a rising wave of third world anti-modernizers, upon which its entire foreign policy model had been based.  The result of that blindness was 9/11. American’s belief in their invincibility meant that the United States’ rejoinders to 9/11—war in Iraq and Afghanistan—were undertaken with insufficient thought of the possible consequences that would arise from those military adventures and the lies that had been use to justify them.


The question that then arises is why, after all these failures and follies, has the United States, persisted blundering into new ones in places like Libya, Egypt, and now Syria?


Probably the most important reason is that not only did the United States change when it became the world’s sole super-power, other countries began to react to the United States differently than they had in the past.


For example, once the Soviet Union no longer appeared to be an immediate threat, the states that make up the European Union felt free to let all their beautiful dreams, noble aspirations, and utter idiocies, which had been held in check because of the immediate threat of the Soviets, take flight. Their attempts to pursue policies based on those fancies led them to become no less oblivious to what was going on around them as the United States. And it also led them to challenge American hegemony in policy-making.


In practical terms, among other things, that has meant that America’s closest allies, who should have replaced the Soviets as counselors against extreme actions and fallacious thinking, instead, have entered into a state of bi-polarism, in which the public mood has swung between euphoria over Americas continuing foreign policy mistakes to deep depression over what the European states themselves had wrought historically during the period of their colonialist adventures. The result has been European-initiated foreign policies based on logical gibberish.


The problem that then arose was that America, especially after the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan had begun seeking broad international support and legitimacy for its every military move from its erstwhile allies. However, in order to accommodate the Europeans’ demands, the sometimes fanciful policies adopted jointly by America and the Europeans in the wake of the recent Arab revolts became increasingly inept.


As I noted last month, probably the stupidest thing any country can do is to embark on a military, political or diplomatic venture without deciding in advance first, what its ultimate political aim is and what should be the criteria for deciding whether that aim has been accomplished; and second, what that country’s exit strategy should be. In other words, one of the prime tasks of any government interested in pursuing a military operation is to tell its diplomatic and military minions what their goals should be and how the country will be able to extricate itself from any initiative if it fails to achieve those goals.


In the Arab world today, a place where everything seems to be swathed in opacity, one thing has become absolutely clear: The Americans and the Europeans, once they decided to enter this arena, have failed to abide by those most elementary strategic principles.


For example, to this day, I find it mind-boggling that US forces invaded Iraq without including a large force of military police in their order of battle. Without such a force, it was inevitable that anarchy and inter-communal infighting would begin almost immediately after the Iraqi regime was overthrown. To make things even worse, though, the first thing that the American administration did once it took control of the country was to fire all those who had been members of the local police force. The result of this vacuum was the instant emergence of violent, local militias bent on tribal revenge for hurts and insults suffered that day, the day before, and hundreds of years before.


Most recently, the proposal to attack Syria that was sent to Congress by the White House failed to state what the long-term goals of such an operation were, which criteria should be used to judge the efficacy of such an operation, and what the US’s exit strategy would be if it found itself sucked into a much more extensive operation than had originally been planned.


It was only very recently, by tracking everything said and reported about the events taking place in the Arab world, that I have finally been able to piece together a reasonably comprehensive portrait of why both the Americans and the Europeans have been acting in such an idiotic fashion.


As best as I can make out, since the Italian Renaissance, what we today call “the Western World” has believed in the transforming power of the pursuit of excellence in human endeavours. Among other things, that belief led to the canonization of skepticism, free expression, and later a belief that democracy as the only way to protect those values and the human exploration of the physical and intellectual worlds that they foster. Along the way, in their search for excellence, the Western countries have nurtured successive generations of a particular class of people who have been able to make their living by claiming to know everything of import in their declared field of interest. There were undoubtedly many geniuses who would never have been given an opportunity to make their contribution to human knowledge had this not been so.


However, the addiction to the idea that “expertise” is the source of all solutions has also produced a profession and social class that I have come to call the “punditocracy.” Unlike scientists and even many social scientists and humanists who are required to submit their work to intense pre and post publication examination by their peers, pundits are not required to do actual research or even present a logically-based argument.


They can take pride of place alongside all those intellectual alchemists and false messiahs of the past. However, recent demands by well-funded ideologues and lobbyists seeking public advocates for their beliefs, in addition to the broadcast media’s increasing demand for “instant analysis,” has led to a geometric growth in the number of practicing pundits.


Today, these practitioners, who may be academics or television commentators or denizens of so-called “think tanks” are only required to present entertaining opinions.


It is, however, worth remembering that Professor Phillip Tetlock of the Wharton School of Business has found that those opinionators who claim to have the greatest knowledge in a particular field are usually the least successful in predicting events in those subject areas for which they claim expertise. In fact, their success rate is sometimes less than fifty percent—or less than what would be achieved by a chimpanzee throwing darts at a target.


Too often these famous individuals are then invited to join or advise a government in power. As the “best and the brightest” liberals who went on to prosecute the Viet Nam War, and as the neo-cons who counseled for war in Iraq and Afghanistan forty years later, that syndrome is not confined to a particular political party…and it can often lead to disaster.


The Peter Principle posits that most of those in any decision-making pyramid in a particular field are usually promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. I have certainly met many of those incompetents. But I’m not sure that incompetence is the only reason why there have been so many recent foreign policy failures. I have come to the conclusion that the real reason for the consistent foolishness of so many of those who are successful in peddling their opinions is that, because their livelihood depends on them becoming advocates, they have forgotten, or maybe never felt the need to learn, how to formulate useful questions.


Usually the reason for this is that the so-called “experts’” listeners are exceedingly undemanding. They would rather hear opinions that have the ring of familiarity than feel impelled to work to digest new ideas and unfamiliar data. The coverage by the media and the comments by American pundits and politicians about the events that have been taking place recently in the Arab world are exemplary cases in point.


For example, the reports that were broadcast from Cairo’s Tahrir Square that the rebels were in the van of a new era that would bring democracy to the country were taken at face value by most of the in-studio “analysts” even though the reports were patently false. They were false for many reasons. Some of the rebels were religious anti-democrats. Many of the secular youngsters in the square were more interested in just getting a job than in changing the political system as such. And maybe most importantly, the rebels did not reflect the opinion of those living outside the major cities.


So, one thing well worth keeping in mind is that, in the world of punditry, conventional wisdom, if it can be combined with long-held dreams, and especially if that combo can then be reformulated in an entertaining way, is probably the most highly valued commodity there is in medialand. In fact, is an almost hard and fast rule that Washington think tanks, in particular, are expected to “talk that kind of talk” in order to be considered relevant.


In other words, pundits may put on an image of being objective. However, unlike truly objective researchers, who ask a question and then spend as much time as is necessary seeking out hard data that will enable them to arrive at an as yet unknown conclusion, pundits are, invariably, advocates for a position that they (or their political or bureaucratic superiors) have adopted, often thoughtlessly, in advance. Any research they do is therefore devoted to seeking out support for existing positions and suppositions.


The Arab revolts were accompanied by an epidemic of punditry of that sort.


The revolution in Tunisia happened so quickly that it was almost impossible for foreigners to react, let alone intervene in the events. But the very opposite was true for events that took place in Libya, Egypt, and Syria.


The events that occurred in Libya, with the possible exception of the manhunt for and the killing of Muammar Ghaddafi, have now been largely forgotten. However, a close look at what is happening there now is very revealing about the state of American foreign policy-making elsewhere today.


After its misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US was very reluctant to get involved in yet another Middle Eastern drama. However, the advent of the United States as the world’s only super-power had created a new situation that the Americans could not ignore.


Ironically, if there is only one super-power in the world, it actually has less freedom of action and is more dependent for keeping its power on maintaining its alliances than if the world is divided into competing camps.


In the old, bipolar world, each super-power reigned over and was able to impose discipline on a coterie of dependents. Even if what the leader of the camp did displeased the less powerful members of the group, the fear of what the team leader or the other gang might do was enough to keep the super-power’s acolytes from making any untoward or outrageous demands.


By the time the Libyan crisis broke out, though, those bonds of fealty had frayed considerably. Moreover, the events taking place in Libya struck a very strong chord in the Europeans’ psyche. The brave attempt by Libyan civilians to hunt down their own, particularly vile and contentious post-colonial dictator seemed to bring forth all the angst and shame and longings for absolution that Europeans had been carrying with them since they had departed from the colonies and left those lands in the hands of monarchs or dictators.


So, almost immediately after the drama began, the Europeans demanded that the US help them to finally get rid of Ghaddafi. The US was reluctant to become involved, but eventually accepted the appeal. That incident produced one of the most absurd, internally incoherent and self-contradictory phrases of recent times: that America was “leading from behind.”


The actual clarion call for military action was issued by one of Europe’s elite “public intellectuals,” a super-pundit named, Bernard-Henri Levy. A philosopher by training, Levy was an almost classic example of what happens when a pundit, who is a powerful and emotive speaker and advocate, but is totally ignorant of the subject at hand, is actually granted power. He gained that power, in part, because the United States, acutely aware of how its single super-power status had weakened its ability to say “no!” to its allies, wanted to keep its alliance with the Europeans intact.


In an act of what can only be described as total feeblemindedness or cluelessness, the US assented to providing fire support so long as it as not required to put any “boots on the ground.”


After a see-saw battle that included massive aerial bombings and missile attacks by American and European forces, Ghaddafi was caught and killed by Libyan rebels.


However, following his death, Libya collapsed into inter-tribal anarchy that could have and should have been predicted in advance. For some inexplicable reason (other than its single-minded devotion to the spread of democracy or maybe simple its total ignorance of how Libya functions), the United States appears to be intellectually incapable of conceiving of why tribalism has so often been adopted as a method of governance, how it works, why it is so effective, and why knowing how to deal with it should have been foremost in planners’ minds if the alliance was truly serious about preparing plans for rebuilding Libya after the war was over.


Before going on, let me answer those questions because the answers will help to explain many of the other things I will be discussing.


Put very simply, tribalism works because it is based on naturally-occurring blood bonds and friendships forged in childhood. Even if it appears to be horribly constrictive and stultifying to democrats, it does provide societies with a means to create trust in each other, to establish agree-upon rules of behaviour, to ensure that lines of communication between group members remain open, to foster a self-governing hierarchy and to provide a means of group defence. In other words, it offers the opportunity to create and maintain a high degree of social stability in what would otherwise be an anarchic world. Its main drawbacks are that it is highly-resistant to change even when the need for adaptation to altered circumstances arises, and it almost automatically creates rivalries with other tribes that are seeking to compete for the same available resources.


When several tribes are forced for any reason to have to live together within the same geographical boundaries, the only way that any form of central government can be created is if one of the strongest tribes can form an alliance with the weakest tribes that have come to believe that they are in need of protection. As part of that deal, the weaker party or parties accepts the autocratic rule of the larger and stronger ally. The benefit to the larger partner is that the combined force is then usually big enough to enable it to impose its will and rule on all the other tribes.


Libya has long been an example of multi-tribal governance taken to its logical extreme. Therefore, it should have been wholly predictable to the Americans that once Muammar Ghaddafi was assassinated, those protective tribal bonds would be broken, and total anarchy would ensue.


Nonetheless, the United States did nothing to prepare for that portentous day. One result of that seminal failure was that, among other things, the American ambassador to that country was assassinated because he was not provided with sufficient bodily protection by his own government.


But many worse things also took place. Because there were no “boots on the ground,” once Ghaddafi’s bulging arms warehouses were flung open, there was no willing or able to defend the huge arms caches he had assembled. Smugglers supported by their tribes then had a field day stealing some of the world’s most advanced weaponry, and peddling it to any and all customers willing to pay the price.


Some of that weaponry made its way to Mali, where jihadist militias were then able to capture the medieval treasure of Timbuktu and begin to destroy it. Only the belated arrival of French troops prevented this Moslem UNESCO Heritage site from being leveled by the extremist jihadists.


Timbuktu may not have been on the Americans’ list of strategic interests, but Egypt certainly was. Another major market for the Libyan arms peddlers was the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, where jihadi rebels there were able to satisfy all their wet dreams about what a modern armoury should look like.


These terrorists were then able not only to threaten the American-sponsored Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement (an American strategic asset and interest if there ever was one) but also the sovereign integrity of Egypt itself.


Additional weaponry is believed to have made its way to Syrian jihadist rebels as well.


But potentially the worst consequence of the way in which the Libyan operation was planned and carried out was that, after the aerial assault ended, because there were no boots on the ground, there was no one available to take charge of the two huge warehouses where Ghaddafi had stored his huge supply of yellowcake. Yellowcake is the first product produced during the refining of uranium into fuel or weapons.


Some of the yellowcake is now believed to have gone missing. And some of the stuff that is missing is now thought to have made its way to Iran. The failure by the US to take immediate control of that uranium violates every principle that has underlain American nuclear weapons reduction policies since the days of Ronald Reagan.


What occurred in Libya was bad enough. But the confusion in American policy-making was even more evident when rebels took to the streets in Egypt.


America was caught totally flatfooted by and clueless about Egypt’s popular rebellion. Unlike the way that the Western media presented the uprising—as some sort of longing for freedom by youngsters—the battle was actually fought as yet another tribal war. Western pundits kept pointing out that Egypt has no formal tribes as is the case in Libya and Syria.  But that observation is only very partially true. Extended families play a very important role in Egyptian society; and an analysis of recent voting patterns there shows that there was very considerable voting by blocs of bloodlines.


Far more importantly, though, Egypt’s constitution establishes state-sanctioned and state-supported institutions such as the military, the judiciary, the monopoly trade unions and a whole bunch of others. As a result, they end up with turfs and interests that need to be defended in exactly the same manner that tribes defend their turf and their interests.+


Another difficulty faced by anyone trying to follow the events taking place in Egypt was that the pundits assigned to explain what was going on there kept assigning the events taking place with a mark based on the totally meaningless and statistically-indescribable term “progress towards democracy.”


The rebellion in Egypt highlighted the problem that because of the American’s fixation on whether a country is about to adopt democratic rule, US politicians and foreign policy-makers consistently end up confusing means for desired ends. And because of their single-minded focus on a means…free elections…they too often ignore the far more important issue of whether the government in question believes in or promotes values such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and minority rights.


The blind belief in democracy too often enables politicians and pundits to forget to take into account that, as in Germany in the 1930s, or more recently in Gaza, free and democratic polling can lead to the victory of rights-denying, war-inducing autocracies.


This blindness all the more remarkable because the United States itself has been afflicted by corrupt political autocracies such as Tammany Hall and Daley Chicago.


As a result, in a burst of self-righteousness and political high-mindedness—but with utter thoughtlessness—American officials, from the president on downwards, pressed for the removal of Hosni Mubarak from office, as a first step to the creation of democratic rule in Egypt.


The elections that ensued were then declared to be “progress.”


When six months later the Egyptian army retook control of the Egyptian government, many of these American analysts were appalled that the army had seized power from the freely-elected Moslem Brotherhood Government. They immediately declared that a “coup” had taken place. The use of the word “coup” became highly contentious in Washington because if that word had been used officially in reference to Egypt, it would, automatically, have led to the cancellation of all the American aid programmes to that country. Such a cancellation could have had untold, negative consequences.


These critics seemed to have been totally incapable of comprehending what it meant to have had a fundamentalist religious political party elected to head a government. Democracy can only function in an environment where compromise is considered to be an acceptable or even welcome form of political activity. By their very nature, fundamentalist religious movements cannot accept any compromise on their most dearly-held doctrines.


The critics of the military also ignored the fact that, on a practical level, because their primary concern was the imposition of Sharia law, the Moslem Brotherhood had failed all the normative tests of legitimacy, including whether it had acted to improve the economy, had protected the rights of minorities such as the Copts, had enhanced the quality of life of the Egyptian people or even protected the country’s sovereignty from encroachments by foreign jihadists in the Sinai.


The situation reminded me once again of the idiocies I heard mouthed by those who claimed that Hamas had remained the only legitimate government in Gaza even after its supporters had expelled the el Fatah by force of arms and it had refused to hold elections after its legal term in office had long expired. The argument invariably given for continuing to support Hamas was that it “was elected.”


This seeming devotion to installing democracy in the Arab world is all the more inexplicable when one sees that American support for Arab autocrats has remained intact in places such as Bahrain, where an tiny minority of Sunnis rules over a vast majority of Shiites, or in Saudi Arabia, which is renowned for being a legal hell-hole and human rights-free.


American pundit apologists try to justify this hypocrisy by claiming that silence, in the face of grossly anti-democratic behaviours and massive human rights violations, is a strategic necessity because Bahrain hosts a huge US naval base, and the US must protect its allies’ access to Saudi oil.


An unspoken but no less real reason for the US turning a blind eye is that the Gulf States strongly influence American domestic politics and elections through their capacity to create American jobs by purchasing vast quantities of American arms and investing even larger sums in the economy.


My point is that this cynical approach to world politics is held by Washington pundits and apologists to be acceptable and within the norms of international diplomacy because these sins of omission are claimed to be strategic necessities. However, because of the failures of the ignorant and clueless pundits, the American public is never given the opportunity to weigh the value of the reasons given for this hypocrisy with other values that may be of similar or even greater worth. For example, the American public might become quite upset if it realized that the tax money it pumps into the American military is used to protect a Saudi Arabian government whose foreign aid money is almost exclusively devoted to constructing and maintaining madrassas (religious schools) that teach the extremist Wahabi approach to Islam. The curriculum of these schools is layered with both anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism.


The more moderate graduates of these institutions are today called non-violent “Salafis.”  But many others form the basic cadre from which el Qaeda and its offshoots draw their fighters. I’ll have more to say about this when I discuss Syria.


All the factors I have mentioned so far, and many more, have been highlighted by the civil war in Syria. Until very recently, America had tried to avoid any significant involvement in that conflict.


It is now pretty obvious that President Obama’s decision to become involved in the warfare in Syria was the product of a mistake on his part. A year ago he announced that the use by the Syrian government of poison gas would be a red line for him. Naïvely, he apparently believed that the threat he voiced publicly would be sufficient to prevent the use of the gas. But then the law of unintended consequences intervened.


For two years, Washington had been able to stand by and watch as over 100,000 people had been slaughtered, 2 million had sought refuge in other countries and 5 million others had been displaced within Syria itself. And, in the past year, the Americans had also managed to ignore the fact that even though it had promised to intervene if poison gas were used by the Syrian government, according to British Prime Minister Wlliam Haig, the Syrian government had used poison gas at least 14 times.


Then, however, a series of events occurred that left the US totally unprepared for the consequences to come. Most of these events were predictable. It was wholly predictable, for example, that at some point, if poison gas were used on a regular basis, a greater amount of gas than planned might be released, or weather conditions such as an inversion might prevent the dissipation of the gas. It was also predictable that if that scenario took place in a city, a great number of civilians, and especially many children, would be among the victims. No less predictable was the fact that if such an event took place during a holiday period, the television networks would latch onto any dramatic pictures of such an event taking place and broadcast those images endlessly because there was no other news to compete for the air time. And, to me at least, it was totally predictable that the pundits, after seeing the footage, would suddenly evince horror and squeamishness at the pictures (“What you are about to see may be very disturbing”) in order to titillate and entertain their audiences. And after having successfully appalled their audiences, it was predictable that they would then demand that the US government do something. Anything.


As I have already mentioned, once it entered the arena of world politics in a big way, the US believed that it had no choice but to support otherwise odious political groups in order to promote what it believed were its interests. I also noted that once the US became a super-power, its erstwhile allies became more independent of America. A third thing I have noted is that if a country wants to intervene in the affairs of another country it has to decide in advance what the aims of that intervention should be. That means also deciding which parties should take over the government after the intervention is over so that those interests can be fostered and protected.


Having to deal with all three of these realities at once makes any effective American intervention in Syria today almost impossible.


Syria is unique in so many ways that it almost defies the development of effective fair governance. Almost all the parties in a position to take over the reins of power once the bloodletting there ends are so loathsome and so dangerous that America is at a loss about what to do. At this moment, it is only being given a choice of supporting what is horrible or facing the ascendancy of what is totally repugnant.


The situation is further complicated by a problem I have not heard discussed at all by the pundits. As I have already mentioned, in a tribal setting—and the Syrian civil war is an ethnic and a religious and a tribal war combined—the best way for one tribe to acquire power is to take one or more smaller tribes or groups under its wing. That is how Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez el Assad consolidated his power in the first place. He took the Christians and the Druze and the urban Sunni merchants under his wing. If the current Alawite dictatorship is to be replaced, that same job will have to be done as part of the creation of some sort of unified political front. In order for it to be effective, such a front can only led by a group capable of creating a similar alliance. For that reason, the only realistic leader of the front will have to be a moderate Sunni group that is willing and capable and trusted enough to be able to take Papa Assad’s minority groups under its protective umbrella.


The difficulty that then arises is that none of the Sunni groups in Syria is large enough to do so. And so any group, if it is to become the patron of the Christians and Druze will have to create an alliance with some of the other Sunni groups first. Only in that way will it be able to show that it is large enough and has the capability to control all the different jihadist groups that are liable to threaten the country’s minorities.


But here come the rub. One of the larger Sunni rebel groups is affiliated with the Moslem Brotherhood. Another is Salafist.


For more than a decade, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have sought to control the alliance of the Arab Gulf States. To that end they have been seeking allies and proxies in the rest of the Arab World. Qatar has supported the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza, while the Saudis have thus been supporting the Salafists and now the army in Egypt…and el Fatah in Palestine.


Western outsiders have tried to establish a national front to run the rebel’s war against Bashar al Assad, but to no avail because the Qataris and the Saudis have so far not permitted their Syrian proxies to work together.


Another factor that Americans seem to be oblivious of is that, as was the case with Egypt, the United States cannot but become embroiled in a religious conflict if it intervenes in Syria. Since it has based its entire narrative on aiding the installation of democratic governments, Americans today will not accept anything less than that as a goal for intervention. However, as I mentioned, democracy depends upon the parties to government seeking and finding compromises. As the Egyptian example demonstrated vividly, however, battles undertaken by religious parties are wars fought to the bitter end.


As if that were not enough, the Europeans have complicated the situation enormously. After seeing the pictures of children being gassed they immediately demanded an international—that is American—reaction. This, apparently, was the final nudge that was needed to suck the Americans into intervening.


But then, just as it the Americans and the Europeans were negotiating how best to intervene together, the Europeans deserted the common front they had demanded be established. Suddenly, one European country after another announced that it would need permission from the UN if it was to even countenance any intervention Syria.


What a ruse to escape taking responsibility for anything!


For the Europeans knew that a big, past mistake had come back to haunt the Americans.


The Russians, the folks whom the Americans had demeaned just a few years ago, had retained a veto in the Security Council. And Vladimir Putin had long ago made it plain that one of his major political goals is to ensure that henceforth no major international event will take place without Russia having a say in its outcome. Furthermore, he has shown that he intends to use any opportunity he can find to avenge the insults Russia had suffered in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. As part of that strategy, he has shown that he intends to use any political and diplomatic sucesses to claw back Russia’s position as a super-power.


When the Europeans thus presented him with an ideal opportunity for him to fulfill his dreams, he seized it. His vehicle was his veto at the UN.


Not only he was able to use it to bash the US he also used it to destroy one of the most important US foreign policy successes in recent history.


Forty years ago, Henry Kissinger, spotted a crack in what had appeared to be an impregnable Soviet-Chinese communist alliance, and drove a bulldozer through that opening.


But now, because of a confluence of interests with new super-power wannabe Beijing, Putin was able to reverse Kissinger’s grand victory by forming a renewed alliance with China to confront and thwart American efforts to get UN Security Council permission for an attack on Syria.


And so now, the US is bereft of the same European allies which had lobbied so strongly for US military intervention in Syria. Washington is incapable of forming a unified rebel leadership because of the competition for influence in the Arab world between American allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia. And Washington is also facing a resolute Russia determined to reestablish its position as a super-power and  to extract every ounce of revenge from what it perceives to be past American slights.


No wonder the US congressional vote on whether to intervene in the Syrian civil war would have been such a close call—even though, unlike the case of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq there is solid proof that Bashar Assad has used chemical weapons and even though America’s status is at stake.


As that great American icon and sage, Casey Stengle once said of his beloved, but hapless and hopeless New York Mets baseball team: Amazin’. Simply amazin’.


Today I wonder what he would have said if he knew that the US president had gone so far as to corral the pro-Israeli lobbyists into supporting an attack on Syria even though the Israeli government had resolutely refused to set a policy on this issue.


Old Casey might have just shaken his head and joined me in saying “Pitiful. Simply pitiful”


So, in conclusion, I can only add that it is still too early for anyone to predict how this scenario will play itself out. But I can assure you of several things. Russia will play  the situation for all it is worth. Iran is listening to every nuance and watching every gesture from a front row seat. And Israel is listening to every nuance and watching every gesture that then comes out of the Iranians who are watching the scenario unfold.



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