Leave Bad Enough Alone
By Edward Luttwak
May 7, 2013
It is now argued most authoritatively that U.S. President Barack Obama's failure to act decisively to remove Bashar al-Assad's regime from power in Syria is explained by internal divisions within his administration, miscalculations about the balance of power on the ground, and the president's own irresolution. There is another explanation, however: that the Obama administration is showing calculated restraint induced by bitter experience and, even more, by the overriding strategic priority of disengaging from the Islamic arc of conflict to better engage with China.
The all-too-obvious reason to stay out of the Syrian civil war is that the aftermath of dictatorship has already been deeply disappointing in three Arab countries. Tunisia suffers from chronic and sometimes violent instability, Libya is grappling with regional and tribal fragmentation, and Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood has become an almost textbook case in political mismanagement. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy is nearly as authoritarian as his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, much less liberal on social matters and women's rights, and certainly much less effective in supervising the now very badly damaged economy. Having called for Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Qaddafi to go, one can understand that Obama might not be thrilled by the prospect of what comes after Assad.
The less obvious reason for restraint in Syria is the underlying cause of these failures. It must be a very fundamental cause indeed, given the extreme differences between the three countries. Tunisia -- with its quasi-Mediterranean urban culture, decades of secular and stable if authoritarian rule, and substantial homogeneity -- would seem to have the preconditions for democratic governance. Yet it is now ruled by an ineffectual Islamist party that is plainly incapable of restarting the economy and cannot or will not protect secular institutions from Salafi attacks. Libya, meanwhile, is as vast as Tunisia is compact, yet with nearly half the population of its western neighbour, it is a tapestry of heterogeneity that devolves into a multitude of rival tribes, some of which are locked in blood feuds. And then there is Egypt, where it was not the well-established liberal community but the Muslim Brotherhood that won the elections, while a Salafi movement that seeks to import Saudi extremism grabbed some 20 percent of the vote. So what is this underlying commonality then?
One is tempted to explain the common fate of these exceedingly different countries by invoking the role of Islam in politics. Islam may well preclude democracy -- to cite Turkey as the counterexample is perverse, for doing so ignores that the country was founded by an authoritarian as a secular state, which its current Islamist rulers are eroding day by day. But there is no reason to trip over the vast problems of contemporary Islam, because the economic level of the populations in these North African states would not support effective democratic governance anyway.
The Arab Spring has indeed been consequential in awakening populations from passivity. But this merely precludes dictatorial rule, even while these countries' fundamental conditions continue to preclude democracy.
Only varieties of anarchy remain. The Syrian civil war is a bloody human tragedy, but the United States could only end it by a full-scale military intervention -- whose ultimate result would most likely be a number of quarrelling Alawite, Sunni Arab, Kurdish, and perhaps Druze statelets. One would hope that after more than a decade entangled in sectarian wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, the United States would have learned to steer clear of here.
The simple truth is that Obama has bigger fish to fry. Yes, there is a strong humanitarian argument for intervention -- but it's the Arab League and willing Europeans who should step up to the plate now that Turkey's impotence has been exposed. The United States has other new responsibilities: To respond effectively to a rising China, it is essential to disengage from the futile pursuit of stability in North Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. Their endless crises capture far too much policy attention and generate pressures for extremely costly military interventions that increase rather than reduce terrorist violence.
By contrast, China's neighbours increasingly boast democratic governments, with economically advancing populations that seek only the reassurance of American strategic engagement. They welcome Americans who visit in great and increasing numbers for business, tourism, and even missionary work (something that can be a death sentence in the Arab Spring countries). Beijing, meanwhile, continues to cooperate with the United States in a great many ways -- but it now also threatens the maritime domains of Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, as well as the territorial integrity of India.
The challenge is to respond to China's almost daily intrusions in a nuanced, non-provocative way, so as to strengthen Beijing's moderates -- they do exist -- and dissuade its hawks, who may now include newly installed President Xi Jinping. To do that, the U.S. government needs not only aircraft carriers and intense diplomacy, but also a steady focus, undistracted by crises elsewhere, especially in the combustible Middle East.
By refusing to get dragged into the Syrian quagmire, Obama and his like-minded advisors should be commended, not condemned, for their prudent restraint and clear-minded strategic priorities.