The Muddle East

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

No one has any idea what the Middle East will look like next year, much less in five years — especially the revolutionary players themselves.

There are not even the old familiar fault lines this revolutionary time around. Are the Sunni Gulf kingdoms eager to support revolutionaries in Syria and North Africa? Perhaps and perhaps not — given that the fall of strongmen like Mubarak, bin Ali, Qaddafi, and Assad may lead to Muslim Brotherhood–inspired Islamist governments, which would like to see the oil-rich monarchies become less Western and more theocratic. Or — though this is less likely — if pro-Western reformist movements were to prevail, such governments would like to democratize and secularize the Gulf. Who are our best allies in breaking up the dangerous Iran-Hezbollah-Syria axis? Islamist extremists who want to kill the hated Assad slightly more than they do us — at least for now?

Who can sort out Lebanon? Are Christians and Shiites there sympathetic to the tottering Assad dictatorship for protecting religious minorities and, in the case of the Shiites, helping to arm Hezbollah? Or do non-Sunnis also favor reform movements that seek the ouster of a despised police state, one that has a long history of killing Lebanese? Does a grateful Iraq feel that Syria has been more sympathetic to its Shiite government than its Sunni neighbors have been, or is it experiencing schadenfreude that its terrorists are now doing to Syria what Syria’s used to do to Iraq?

Will new Arab Islamist governments seek solidarity with the anti-Western Persian theocracy, or will they fall back into their religious and ethnic fears of Iranian Shiites? No one has ever quite fathomed whether Shiite and Sunni extremists hate Westerners more or less than they do each other. Does the supposed Arab Street desire to be free, especially in the age of globalized instant communications, and given its general repugnance for the sheer corruption of the moribund Arab dictatorships? Or will the Muslim Brotherhood simply tap that popular anger to abort the delivery of constitutional government — whether overtly, as in the case of the Iranian revolution and the one-vote-once Hamas takeover of Gaza; or more insidiously, as in the current Turkish government’s war against freedom of the press and independent opposition movements, or in the Karzai-Maliki paradigm of constitutional kleptocracy?

Amid this chaos there are a handful of constants that can guide US foreign policy.

1. Arab governments, whether they take the form of one-man authoritarianism, monarchy, or theocracy, will remain anti-Israel. That is not to say that particular factions from time to time will not stealthily strengthen ties with Israel in order to punish shared enemies, but by and large the Arab Middle East will still detest Israel. The region’s unrepentant embrace of anti-Semitism, resentment over the economic power and success of Israel, and longstanding anger at the establishment of a Jewish state in the heart of the Arab Middle East trump all ephemeral changes in government. To the extent that a new Arab regime is elected by popular vote, and to the extent that it retains the loyalty of its people, anti-Israeli feeling will only escalate. Power to the people in the Middle East means more power to hate Israel.

2. The Arab Middle East will remain anti-American. We already see that Barack Hussein Obama had little, if any, success in winning over hearts and minds of the Arab Street after the exit of the Texas evangelical and Iraq-invading George Bush. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was greeted with crude chants of “Monica” from demonstrators among our supposedly secular, reformist allies in aid-receiving “friendly” Egypt. The new government in Cairo apparently wishes the release of the mass-murdering blind sheikh, who helped plan the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and who dreams of Jerusalem as the Arab capital of a West Bank state. It took the overthrow of the odious Moammar Qaddafi to ensure that a British Commonwealth cemetery from the Second World War would at last be desecrated — in Timbuktu/Bamiyan style. All we know of Syria with any surety is that Assad detests us, his Hezbollah partners detest us, his Iranian patrons detest us, the al-Qaeda extremists who seek to overthrow him detest us, and more reasonable reformist rebels either detest us for not helping them more overtly, or will soon find other reasons for detesting us when and if they should seize power. American aid; generous US immigration policies for Muslims and Arabs; loud support for democratic movements; the removal of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi; past help to the Iraqis, Kuwaitis, Egyptians, Palestinians, and Jordanians; prior efforts to protect Muslims in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Somalia — all that earns little, if any, goodwill.

3. Oil, one way or another, will still affect all strategic thinking. Over the next decade, the huge new reserves of oil and natural gas found in the US, Canada, and Mexico will — if fully exploited — revolutionize the fossil-fuel supplies of North America. Vastly increased daily production will allow the United States,inter alia, far more flexibility in its foreign policy, freed from fears of embargos, boycotts, and OPEC price-rigging. Add into the mix the unanticipated emergence of an energy-independent Israel, and access to Arab oil — and the power of Middle East petrodollars — may no longer dominate American foreign policy. For good or evil, in five years we may be no more concerned about the subversion of Arab Spring-type democratic movements than the present administration is today about the lack, or erosion, of constitutional government in nearby Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Peru, and Venezuela.

4. Nuclear proliferation may become immune to international scrutiny. There is simply too much turmoil in the Middle East for the international community to monitor and control the spread of nuclear weapons. As Western forces leave Afghanistan, expect tensions to rise between Afghanistan and nuclear Pakistan, and between nuclear Pakistan and nuclear India. No one can figure out the politics of either an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, or an announcement that Iran has let off a nuclear device — other than that either development, or both, would destabilize the region even more. If Syria, the entire West Bank, Jordan, and Egypt embrace Muslim Brotherhood-inspired governments — soon a probability — we will see a return to the pre-1973 Middle East calculus, with Islamism substituting for the old pro-Soviet stance as the common creed of uniform hostility among frontline enemies of Israel. In such a scenario, the Arab states would naturally seek some sort of replacement for the lost Soviet deterrence that always ensured that, as in 1967 or 1973, an Arab setback was not quite a total defeat.

5. We will have not a single ally in any effort to influence Middle East change. Reset with Vladimir Putin’s Russia was an abject disaster. The only impulse that trumps Putin’s fear of Islamic radicalism is his desire to ensure that any crisis in the region affects America negatively. China wants oil, period. To the extent that it is involved, it seeks to be on the side of any government that provides it energy and, as a bonus, is anti-American — which gives it a wide field in which to play. A financially troubled Europe will not repeat its Libyan escapade. Europe’s southern nations, which are most proximate to Middle Eastern unrest, are also all insolvent, increasingly disarmed, and paranoid about the sources of their energy. A non-interventionist Germany has not just the say over whether the euro zone survives, but, by virtue of its much-needed money,de facto veto power over future collective European action. Turkey is the Obama administration’s most fickle and unreliable new “ally,” distancing itself from the United States when it seeks new Islamic partners, only to beg for our cooperation when those efforts blow up in its face, as they have in Syria. NATO is dying on the vine, because of our much-heralded Asian “pivot” and the lack of money in Europe. The United Nations remains a joke; there will never be a UN resolution regarding Syria like the one regarding Libya — largely because the West stoked Chinese and Russian resentment when it transmogrified UN-approved humanitarian help and no-fly zones into a blank check for bombing.

Given those depressing factors, where does the ongoing Middle East mess leave America? We should restore close relations with an Israel that is becoming wealthier and stronger all the time, and is the only consistently pro-American, democratic nation in the entire region. The Obama administration has demonstrated that any hint of daylight between the US and Israel does not win over the Arab world, but only persuades it that Israel is more vulnerable.

The wisest course will be to depersonalize our Middle East policy and simply state that the US, to the extent that it weighs in on the turmoil, supports constitutional government (rather than plebiscites): To the degree that a society is transparent, respects human rights, and remains consensual, we support it; to the degree that it does not, we are more likely to oppose it. In fact, that would soon place us at odds with most of the theocratic movements that are slowly strangling their secularist counterparts. The US must fast-track energy exploration, especially via the leasing of resource-rich federal land, the completion of the Keystone pipeline, and drilling in well-established oil-rich areas offshore and in Alaska. If North America does become energy independent, the entire continent — and perhaps the world at large — will be both richer and safer.

Now is not the time to cut our strategic arsenal or to prune back missile defense. The danger is not the loss of our own nuclear deterrence, but any sign that the US feels somehow that its arsenal is redundant. We should worry not just that Egypt or a Gulf state might go nuclear in response to Iran, but that a half-dozen nations might. America’s message to the Middle East must be that an attack on the US or its interests would not only be futile but would ensure an overwhelmingly destructive response.

In short, names and faces come and go in the Middle East. So do its mass movements — whether pro-Hitler fascism, Nasserism, Baathism, Soviet clientship, or Islamism and theocracy. Yesterday’s crude Grand Mufti is today’s slicker Hassan Nasrallah and may be tomorrow’s slickest of all, Mohammed Morsi. Hosni Mubarak went from Nasserite stooge, to Sadat’s welcomed successor, to a reliably corrupt but strategically aligned US ally, to enemy of the Arab Street and now little more than a breathing corpse.

All that should remain constant is American support for a pro-Western, free-market, and constitutional Arab world, an inseparable alliance with Israel, an end to importation of Middle Eastern energy, and an America with overwhelming military dominance.

©2012 Victor Davis Hanson

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