What's In It for Us?

Dominoes are falling in the Middle East. They're just not the right dominoes.


If the United States still had a great-power rival, it would be hard to count the revolutionary tide sweeping the Middle East and North Africa as anything other than a disaster. Of the governments that have so far been toppled or placed in jeopardy this year, most have had pretty fair relations with the U.S.

Three of them—Egypt, Bahrain, and Jordan—are designated "major non-NATO allies" by the U.S. government. Yemen and Tunisia have been strategic partners in the struggle against terrorism. Even chronically unstable Algeria has improved its standing with the United States in the past decade. The American-midwifed government of Iraq is beginning to experience some stirrings of popular protest. Of the governments that are to some degree hostile, Iran saw a large demonstration on Monday that was quickly put down, while Syria has been notable mainly for its placidity. In Lebanon, a power grab by Hezbollah that was not related to the larger movement was a loss for American interests—and almost certainly for Lebanon itself.

For international freedom and self-determination, the people power movement seems to be a clear blessing. It is neither Shiite nor Sunni. It is not entirely Arab. And it has so far been remarkably short on rabid Islamist coloration. But statecraft is not about doing the right thing. It's about advancing national interests. And on that score, 2011 has delivered, at best, a mixed bag for the United States.

This may be a temporary setback. The kind of national friendship that needs to be backed up by autocratic rule is probably not worth having. But not all the bad governments in the Middle East are American assets. Barring a renewed uprising that could seriously threaten Iran's unelected madcap Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when will the popular firestorm start burning up some of the rotten rulers who are also rotten anti-American rulers?

It may take a while. Even at this late date, anti-Americanism still tends to come bundled with a package of illiberal and anti-Democratic tendencies. These tendencies are out of fashion at the moment, but they retain their force. In a concise look at Syria's weak people power, the writer Katherine Zoepf describes how a government can still hold its position through Hobbesian menace and the kind of iron fist that recently ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could only envy:

Syrians are, generally speaking, far more fearful of their government than their Egyptian counterparts, and they have reason to be: they still live under an emergency law, enacted in 1963 and justified by Syria's ongoing state of war with Israel, that suspends their constitutional rights. The Muslim Brotherhood, illegal but essentially tolerated in Egypt, has in Syria been effectively hounded out of existence. In Syria, membership in the brotherhood has, since 1980, been a capital offense.

I still remember how astonished I was when, visiting Egypt for the first time in the spring of 2005, I was taken to a meeting of Kefaya, a loose coalition of political groups opposing Hosni Mubarak's presidency. The meeting, held in a large hall in the journalist's union building in central Cairo, had attracted hundreds from across the political spectrum. I'd been living in Syria for nearly a year at that point, and I was already habituated enough to Syrian norms to be awestruck at the sight of these Egyptian activists, arguing and networking with one another in the lobby, swapping business cards and handing out pamphlets. Such a meeting would have been literally unimaginable in Syria, where all dissent is ruthlessly, and immediately, crushed…

Syria's leadership has been able to maintain this choke-hold on its people in part, because Syrians also fear their own diversity. While close to 90% of Egyptians are Sunnis, Syria has large Christian, Shia, Alawite and Kurdish populations. These ethnic minorities fear what could replace Bashar al-Assad's government and, after the arrival of an estimated 1.3 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, they know all too well the kind of chaos these divisions can give rise to.

In other words, if you're placing a bet, expect that in the Middle East revolution, Syria will finish up—as it always does—in last place. With all due respect to the anti-authoritarian powers of Facebook and Twitter (and I don't think a lot of respect is due, as demonstrated by Syria's simultaneous decisions to loosen restrictions on social networks and imprison a high school blogger), brute force is still the ultimate power in the universe. That's why they call it brute force.

But the Levantine diversity Zoepf describes—in which everybody hates everybody else—can work both ways. In Syria it allows the Assad family to hold power for eternity despite belonging to a tiny, despised religious sect and engaging in family high-jinx worthy of the cheapest telenovela. But in Lebanon it prevents monopoly power so effectively that even Hezbollah, in its moment of triumph, has to tread carefully. There's still a very slim chance that new Prime Minister Najib al-Mikati will decline to throw out the United Nations tribunal investigating Rafiq Hariri's murder—the very job for which Hezbollah had him installed. 

In a popular Los Angeles Times op-ed, pan-galactic hawk John Bolton sees the low-key chaos in Lebanon, which he considers more important than the toppling of the government in Egypt, as a referendum on American resolve, declaring, "History will rightly blame the West for the tragedy of the takeover in Beirut." Bolton carefully elides practical details: He blames the West for failing to "follow through" after Israel's 2006 war against Hezbollah, without noting that Ehud Olmert utterly failed to defeat Hezbollah in that war—a point on which last year's Wikileaks cable dump found Americans, Syrians, Lebanese, and Israelis in rare and solid agreement. "This is our last opportunity," Bolton writes, "before Hezbollah's armed capabilities swallow democracy in Lebanon, perhaps permanently, and dramatically increase the risk of renewed hostilities throughout the region."

Lebanon does provide many lessons for this moment, and as is proper for the Middle East, they are completely ambiguous. The 2005-2006 people power uprising that seized Beirut after Hariri's assassination was, as a percentage of Lebanon's population, larger and more notable than anything that has happened in Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, or anywhere else this year. And in the end, it's not clear what effect it had. Ditto the invasion of Iraq, the oil spike, the global recession, skyrocketing food prices, massive deficits, the pan-Shiite threat, the waning appeal of Wahhabist extremism, and any other single-point explanation you can name.

Because what matters is that the United States does not have a great-power rival in the Middle East, yet our foreign policy continues to operate as if it does. So America finds itself in the middle of a great party, but only able to fret about how it will get to work the next day. You have to imagine an outcome where all the bad guys remain in place, all the "good" guys end up getting ousted, and it's still a change for the better. Right now, that's a leap the Obama Administration doesn't seem able to make.

Tim Cavanaugh is a senior editor at Reason magazine.