Tuesday, September 18, 2012

No Easy Way

Faced with limited options in dealing with the latest spike in unrest in the Middle East, and the inability to effectively control the situation, the Obama administration is right to have a measured response.

I've seen the infamous anti-Muslim video Innocence of Muslims, and it's almost impossible to believe that this is the symbolic center of the biggest geopolitical crisis of the year.  It's a nonsensical jumble of scenes that don't form a cogent movie or trailer, and has the production value of an elementary school play.  Actors in cheap Halloween costumes and brownface, their spoken lines badly dubbed over with incongruous voices to spout inscrutable references to Mohammed, and crude allusions to homosexuality and rape -- one would think such a video would be left to languish in total obscurity on a corner of the Internet... and yet, here we are.

But this video isn't really what's fueling the latest round of unrest in the Arab world.  Hardly anyone has actually watched the film, but the masses are appalled at the very idea of their religion being disrespected.  Meanwhile, certain groups have seized upon this video as a pretext to achieve their own goals of whipping up anti-Americanism and fomenting violence.  Protests (albeit of limited size) are currently raging throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia; tragically, last Tuesday the Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed along with three other Americans at the consulate in Benghazi.  The attack may have been a calculated terrorist strike that took advantage of the chaos.  Meanwhile, Israel has sounded fresh alarm bells over Iran's progress with its nuclear program, with President Benjamin Netanyahu urging the U.S. to deal with Iran while threatening to attack first himself.  Amidst this maelstrom, the Obama administration has acted with restraint, commendably withstanding the high political pressure and bias toward doing something.

The region's instability has led Mitt Romney and a number of hawkish foreign policy critics at home to bemoan the U.S. "leading from behind" and general "passivity" of our response.  And here's where, if I were delivering a political convention speech, I would invent an aphorism-spinning father or grandmother who used to tell me "I don't want to hear you complaining about a problem, I want to hear how you'll fix it!"  It's nothing but lazy opportunism to pin long-running anti-Americanism by certain factions in the Middle East on the president for something he has done (or not done).  But from none of these critics have I heard alternate solutions to the tough questions:
  • Would you mow down crowds protesting outside American embassies, and can you believe that wouldn't inflame a much greater magnitude of people in those countries?
  • What happened to our Bush-era goals of promoting democracy and freedom (something I laud the former president for)?  Wound you instead have propped up a reviled dictator in Hosni Mubarak just because you don't like who the Egyptian people ultimately chose to govern them (the Muslim Brotherhood)?
  • Would you commit American troops and lives on the ground in Syria to stop a bloody civil war involving myriad factions (Bashar Assad's government forces, Alawite Sunni loyalists, Free Syrian Army rebels, Kurds, Christians, foreign fighters, et al.)?
  • Would you have already used military force to stop Iran's nuclear program?
The Obama administration has answered "No" to these questions, with some qualifiers (reserving the right to intervene in Syria if Assad brings chemical weapons come into play; avoiding public bluster but guaranteeing that Iran will not obtain nuclear weapons) and I concur.

Relations with Egypt are deteriorating, and while there are grounds to question President Mohammed Morsi's commitment to democracy and minority rights, the extreme prejudice against the ruling Muslim Brotherhood is counterproductive.  The same folks who once cheered democracy and freedom in the Muslim world are now harsh critics because elections didn't produce leaders they liked.  (Romney, to his credit, has not wavered about calling Egypt an ally.)  They would do well to remember that democracy lets people hold their elected leaders accountable, and that it forces those in charge to produce results for their people.  In autocracies, by comparison, the only outlet for dissent for far too long has been the scapegoating of America and Israel for all problems.

I've seen commentators assail Obama for not doing enough to support Iran's Green Movement in 2009 while also criticizing him for his realpolitik engagement with Morsi's regime in Egypt.  Well, guess what?  If your foreign policy strategy is to be "ideologically contradictory" -- support of democratic regime change in Tehran, but not in Egypt -- then you've nailed it.  I give credit to President George W. Bush for advocating self-determination in the Muslim world as the key to a better future for them and for us, because I think it is the long-term best play for us as well as the morally correct policy.

It's easy to talk tough about using military force against Iran, and many Republicans are competing amongst themselves to sound more bellicose. However, given the huge cost in money and lives for our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus the focus on the national deficit and high unemployment, there is little public appetite for yet another American war in the Middle East.  Especially one that would be a costlier and deadlier fight than the previous two. With that said, the Obama administration has been clear that they reserve the right to use force, and that the U.S. would act to prevent an imminent catastrophe if one arose.  I don't see it coming to that.

The most urgent crisis is in Syria, where full-scale civil war has already claimed at least 25,000 lives and displaced over a million people.  Worse yet, the conflict has broadened to become a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar (Sunnis) on one side versus Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah (Shias).  As bad as things are -- and with widespread torture, scorched-earth fighting, and civilian massacres, it is bad -- there is little that the U.S. can do.  While we may be aiding the Free Syrian Army in a low-key manner (providing intelligence, communications gear) we are not capable of pulling off full-blown regime change and setting up a new government.  The urge to intervene is further tempered by the need to avoid drawing Syrian allies Iran and Russia further into the conflict, and to avoid creating the appearance of another U.S.-led crusade which al-Qaeda and our other enemies could rally around.

Finally, returning to the topic on which we started, the video.  It seems like every month there is some provocation -- burning or flushing of Qu'rans, alleged blasphemy, cartoon insults -- and the understandable Western reaction is to wonder why the Muslim world (not just Arabs) is so sensitive and prone to react violently.  To the rioters I ask: how fragile is your faith, how weak is your God, if every time your beliefs are challenged by any random fellow, you feel so insulted and offended you have to violently respond?   Worse yet, to attack people who had nothing to do with what caused you offense?  How much better off these people would be if they directed that level of passion and rage to protest the lack of meaningful economic opportunities available to them, corruption among their leaders, and the need for better infrastructure and education in their countries!

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