The Middle East Mess

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media

Libya, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and the All the Same Old, Same Old Mess

Each country in the Middle East poses unique challenges. That said, gender apartheid, religious intolerance, tribalism, dictatorship, statism, and lack of transparency and free expression are widely shared in the region, and mean that any particular policy will almost immediately collide with some two millennia of habit and custom antithetical and often hostile to the values of the West. That the West is presently broke, multicultural, full of guilt and incapable of defending its values and history only confuses the issue even more.

Libya and Iraq

We are all glad that the Gadhafi regime is purportedly on its last legs. When I visited Libya in 2006, tragedy was what I saw — and a friendly population under the yoke of a psychopath. But I don’t think we have had much idea of what we were doing in Libya — a sort of diplomatic pastime secondary to presidential jet-setting and golfing. Moreover, I don’t see any hypocrisy in critiquing our confusion over Libya, as a supporter of the removal of Saddam Hussein. Wanting to use American power and influence to its fullest extent when going to war is preferable to not wanting to use all our power and influence when going to war. The hypocrisy is rather on the Left, which once damned the principle of intervention against an Arab Middle East oil-exporting nation that had not recently attacked us, only to support intervention against an Arab Middle East oil-exporting nation that had not recently attacked us. In the Left’s defense, one could argue their consistency is that it’s OK if you have a UN vote, but irrelevant whether you have consent of the US Congress.

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was the object of 23 different Congressional authorizations (one should go back and read that October 2002 long list of “whereas”es), had been in hot and cold wars with us since 1991, attacked four neighbors, and in the heart of the ancient caliphate was hosting all sorts of terrorists. In a post-911 climate it made sense to reckon with him. Indeed, I think one of the great untold stories of Iraq was the carnage of Islamic terrorists who by volition promised that Iraq would be the central theater in jihad, flocked there, were killed and wounded in droves, and lost — and vastly weakened their cause. But in contrast, the West was apparently in the middle of a weird charm offensive with Gadhafi (one advanced by bought-and-paid-for American academics, European oil companies, and multicultural elites), and the result by 2010 was that Libya was considered no longer the 1986 Libya that Reagan had bombed.

Syria and Iran

But no matter, monsters are always monstrous and we are all glad to see them go. The question, though, is: “monstrous” compared to which monsters in the region? In truth, we have two dangerous strategic enemies in the Middle East. They were not the dictatorships in Egypt, Tunisia, or Libya — countries whose indigenous unrest we opportunistically piled on only when welcomed regime change seemed a foregone conclusion.

Yet when a million dissidents hit the streets in Spring 2009 in Iran, the president deliberately decried “meddling,” invoked the tired, half-century-old Mosaddeq talking point, and kept mum — worried that his much heralded “outreach” to Iran might be jeopardized. But, of course, it was anyway. The Obama multicultural magic did not affect the theocracy, which laughed at four serial deadlines to cease and desist work on their nuclear projects — “or else.” In terms of population, history, national wealth, past relations with the US, nuclear capability, levels of support for terrorism, and attitudes toward US allies, especially Israel, Iran was far more dangerous than all the North African nations combined — and yet somehow was courted the most under the new reset Obama diplomacy.

The other anti-American twin was Syria, the subverter of Lebanon and Iraq, Iran’s key ally, Hezbollah’s next-door sponsor, and a supplier of Hamas. So prior presidents had wisely broken relations with the Assad regime. Obama, however, immediately restored them, and without preconditions. Hillary Clinton dubbed the psychopathic Assad a “reformer.” Whereas Gadhafi deserved bombs, we still haven’t quite broken diplomatic relations with Damascus. If Obama’s grand strategy was to start with small words against Mubarak, a little bombing now and then against Gadhafi, followed soon by real pressure on Syria and Iran — then there is a logic to it. But right now the message, fairly or not, is that to the degree a thug likes America, gives up or does not try to acquire nuclear weapons, or wants to triangulate with us, we want him gone; to the degree he is an anti-American thug, a front-line enemy of Israel, and builds reactors, we deem him more authentic and legitimate and therefore adopt a policy of non-interference — unless of course, the million in the street, without our encouragement, are a day or so away from toppling the regime.

This policy is especially odd, when, in relation to Iran and Syria, we have a chance to dovetail our interests with the Gulf oil producers who want Assad gone; when we have a chance to weaken the Shiite extremists in both Lebanon and Iraq by pressuring Assad; when we can encourage a falling out between the new Ottoman Turkey, Iran, and Syria, and when we can weaken Iran by chopping off its key Arab ally. Let us hope that Obama sees that in comparison to Iran and Syria, Libya was small potatoes, and mostly a Europe/Mediterranean distraction.

The UN and the Middle East

We never quite knew what we were doing in Libya, which explains almost half-a-year and thousands killed to rout Gadhafi. Early on, President Obama said we were only following the UN and Arab League mandates to enforce a no-fly-zone that would have little bearing on whether Gadhafi survived or perished. Once those limitations were realized, we unilaterally broadened our mission to include ground targeting, claiming UN legitimacy in going well beyond the UN accords. In Iraq, we obtained authorization from the US Congress; in Libya we bypassed it in preference to the Arab League and the UN. In Iraq, France and Russia said no to UN sponsorship; in Libya, the UN said no to bombing ground targets and targeting the Gadhafi family, as we nodded, praised, and then ignored all that.

A Reset Middle East

In the Balkans and Iraq, the US led and took on the responsibility for either victory or defeat. In Libya, we sorta/sorta not participated and so allowed a dictatorship of about 7 million people to withstand the three principle NATO powers for nearly six months. If the point was to “lead from behind” and force our allies to “do their fair share,” we did not really accomplish that goal, but instead exposed European weakness and the impotence of NATO. Moreover, we will probably learn that the majority of the costs and supplies (and perhaps even the missions) were US, but the impression remains that France and Britain took out Gadhafi. Early on the president assured the country that regime change was not our goal, only no-fly-zones and humanitarianism; at some unspoken point that was dropped and reality set in: you don’t get rid of Gadhafi by buzzing his airports — and NATO does not bomb Libya without trying to rid it of Gadhafi.


At some point things could get ugly in Libya and someone is responsible; if we led from behind in the bombing, do we lead from behind in ensuring there is not a Mogadishu-like chaos? Or is that a European problem? With thousands of shoulder-held missile launchers in Libya, the question is not academic or partisan.

Well, then, what to do?

The center of our Middle East policy should be to ensure vast oil revenues are not translated into subsidizing terrorism aimed at the US and its allies, or used by crazed dictators to absorb other weaker nations to create some sort of Pan-Islamic caliphate or Pan-Arabic belligerent.

That would mean in a post-Saddam world thwarting Assad’s Syria and theocratic Iran, and to the extent we can, steering the third stage of some seven decades of postwar Middle East unrest away from Islamic fundamentalism toward constitutional government, while remaining a strong supporter of Israel. To accomplish those goals, a confident America would (a) have to get its financial house in order; (b) seek to limit blackmail by exploiting all of our own huge and growing fossil fuel reserves; (c) stop backbiting democratic Israel; (d) work where we can and when it is possible with petro-rich Sunni states to isolate Syria and Iran; (e) promote consensual government apart from Islamic republicanism — especially through far more vocal and stealthy support for the Syrian and Iranian protestors. (Suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood is largely secular would not be part of the plan. Nor would apologizing for past American sins. Nor would publicly rebuking Israel. Nor would outreach to Iran and Syria.)

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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