The Middle East’s Muddled Message

The Middle East is a mess.  This is not new news.  It was that way when President George W Bush invaded in 2003.  Some people just don’t need facts or background to commit other people’s children to war.

Now people are saying the Arab Spring has cast the Middle East in a somewhat different light.  We are told “look what the power of social media can do.  People thirst for democracy and freedom.  If given a chance, they will throw out the tyrants and…”

If you look at the details, however, it really is the same picture.  Most of these countries are dirt poor and poorly educated.  Governments cling to power with behind the scenes deals with Muslim leaders.  The first function of these governments is to ensure the leaders and their bureaucrat supporters get a privileged cut of the meager national resources.  Keeping their citizens poor, uneducated, and dependent upon the government, works well and has been a well practiced formula.

With Iraq today, we are seeing that you can put a new dress on but that doesn’t change the person inside the dress.  Iraq has traded a Sunni tyrant in Saddam Hussein for a sharply partisan, ineffective Shiite lead government whose main interests are in garnering as much power and wealth as they can.  This time, Shiites rather than Sunnis, see the wealth as their right.

Tunisia was the first Arab Spring country to topple its tyrant in 2011.  Not much has changed there but things also have not deteriorated.

Egypt followed with a dramatic ouster of Hosni Mubarak.  The West chose not to support him.  Democratic elections have followed and Islamic groups have gained a large majority in their legislature.  In and of itself, this is not a problem.

What is a problem is that these new elected officials want the military (the former power behind Mubarak) to cease interfering with the daily administration of government.  Again why should this be a problem?  The answer is that the military controls revenue producing businesses and that means money.   Trying to take this money away from the military will have unforeseen consequences.

Libya was home to the next worst despot, Muammar Gaddafi.  When uprisings began the West intervened.  “The west thought it could help these brave people gain freedom and democracy”.   After a protracted, but one sided fight, Gaddafi was ousted, and later killed.  Hurray, democracy had won and Libya was better off without Gaddafi.  (Sound like Dick Cheney and Iraq?)

Oh, wait, Libya is currently splintering into numerous armed militias all trying to gain enough power and land to ensure they receive a generous share of oil money.  Different land but the same story.

Syria now commands the front pages.  The Arab spring one year later has engulfed Syria.  No surprise, Bashar al-Assad was not sleeping during the Arab Spring.  He saw what happens when a government loosens its power and even more clearly, what happens to that county’s leaders.  Backed by Russian help, the Assad government has adopted exceedingly strong measures to put down those who want a new government.  The cruelty with which the resistance is being subdued is appalling.  The alternative for Assad would not be pleasant either.

So what is the message here?

Intervention can achieve short term goals.  Longer term, however, a different group of chickens may come home to roost.  US foreign policy with respect to the Middle East better be pragmatic and short on idealism.

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