As the Middle East Unravels, the US Pulls No Strings

As the Middle East Unravels, the US Pulls No Strings

Much of the Middle East is suddenly coming unglued–with it, years of US effort to encourage democratic order in the region will go to waste. It is time for Washington to do something very smart–nearly nothing.

Syria and Egypt are at varying degrees of disintegration. Turkey, so recently everybody’s hope for a “democratic model” in the Muslim world, is now sliding back to sultanic autocracy. Iran has just elected an apparently “moderate” president. Yet, there are few signs that he will come Washington’s way on nuclear capability and support for the Assad regime in Syria. But it is at least in the wait-and-see category.

The Middle East is a messy part of the world. But most of these fights are not America’s to win or lose. Look at the list of nations just named. In a 20th century framework, Washington would claim a “strategic interest” in every one of them. But in the era now emerging, either the outcome will matter little to the US or our way of influencing it will evolve.

“We can no longer seek to remake countries in the Middle East and South Asia, as was tried at great cost and with little success in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign relations, wrote recently. “Primacy is not license to do as we please.”

This is a thought with immense implications. “Remaking countries” has been on America’s calling card since the Spanish–American War in 1898 and was prominent among the ambitions of George W. Bush, Barack Obama’s predecessor in the White House. Between Haass’ remarks and Obama’s landmark speech at the National Defense University in May, it starts to emerge that America’s worldly idea of itself is coming in for fundamental change.

It must if the US is to keep pace with the distinguishing marks of the post–Cold War world. These include not only new, rising powers but new kinds of power—economic, technological—and new ways to exert influence: diplomatically, multilaterally, by way of trade (or sanctions).

It is pure circumstance, but the Middle East is now emerging as the proving ground for what we can call the Haass thesis—doing less is often doing best. Consider Syria, the hot spot of the day. Even given the administration’s caution in recent months, Washington is getting in over its head. It is evident at this point that US interests in Syria are best served from a distance.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has sought insistently to convene a multilateral conference on Syria. But did you see Obama meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 8 session held recently in Northern Ireland? As Reuters reported, the photograph of the two—Obama staring into space, Putin at the floor—“says it all.” The word at the UN is that there may be no Syria conference, ever.
The Wall Street Journal, meantime, set off a storm of web chatter over the weekend when it reported that the Central Intelligence Agency has started shipping light arms—and possibly anti-tank missiles—to Jordan for delivery to Syrian rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al–Assad. The idea behind these weapons deliveries was to push Assad toward transition talks. What is the point now, you have to ask.

Assad’s ministers are gloating. Kadri Jamil, a deputy prime minister, just told theFinancial Times that Russia, China, and Iran are doing all Damascus needs to keep the economy and the war machine going—extending credit lines, pricing in rubles, yuan, and rials, delivering $500 million a month in refined oil products. “It’s not bad to have behind you the Russians, the Chinese, and the Iranians,” Jamil told the FT.

Not even Washington’s allies are listening. On Sunday we learned that Qatar, which is vigorously anti–Assad, has been sending the rebels heat-seeking missiles all year. Washington expressly asked the emirate to refrain from sending such weapons to keep them from the hands of potentially hostile forces.

There is little place for the US in this environment. Not even the small arms supplies make sense at this point. Kerry should continue to press for a Geneva conference on Syria, as opportunities arise; obviously sanctions against Syria should be maintained; medical and humanitarian supplies should keep flowing to the rebels, and that is the perimeter of a sensible US policy, at least for now.

What about Egypt, then? It is about to explode. Over the weekend, six-figure crowds, larger than any observer had forecast, massed in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, Suez, and other cities—all demanding that President Mohammed Morsi, elected freely last year, step aside. The complaint is that Morsi, an Islamist, has not drawn the nation together amid dire economic, political, social, and security problems.

The outcome in Egypt is of primary importance to the US. It is the largest effort the region has yet made to reconcile Islam with democratic values and practice. What happens to Morsi and Egypt’s political process will have a powerful impact on the Middle East’s ability to bring its societies into the 21st century.

And the US role? Should it support a duly elected leader who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood? Or should it support a disparate opposition dedicated to pulling down the government, and which includes (among numerous others) secularists and Christians?

You start to see how difficult Washington’s choices have become. In Egypt’s case, Obama had it right when he spoke of it over the weekend during his South Africa visit: We support nobody, he said. We support the democratic process.

The same can be said of Turkey, of course. The protests that erupted last month in Istanbul—and spread to 79 of Turkey’s 81 provinces—have now died down. Police have occupied the park that was at issue, and they have arrested more than 5,000 demonstrators, according to a local newspaper. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proven every bit the autocrat his adversaries say he is.

This mess is not yet mopped up. Prominent cultural and political figures are promising more popular resistance to the Erdogan administration. It is entirely justified. But there is little Washington can do except encourage a vigorous political process.

Ironically, Iran represents the one place in the Middle East where Washington has an opportunity to make significant advances. No one knows yet just how “moderate” Hassan Rohani, the nation’s new president, will prove to be.