Monday, January 31, 2011
Obama Loses the Middle East
It's no coincidence that major revolutions against Western backed governments have occurred under weak American presidents. The Iranian revolution against the Shah happened on Jimmy Carter's watch. The current violence in Tunisia and Egypt is taking place under Obama. And the timing is quite interesting. Revolts which coincided with a new opposition congress almost suggest that they were scheduled for a time when Obama would be at his politically weakest. Additionally the 2010 defeats would have indicated to the Iranian regime that they might only have a 2 year window in which to act before Obama is replaced by an unknown, but probably more conservative politician. A "Now or Never" moment. The Iranian Revolution might never have happened under Reagan. But Carter's weakness, left wing politics and contempt for the very notion of defending American interests made it possible. Similarly despite attempts by some Bush advisers to take credit for Tunisia and Egypt, it is unlikely that they would have taken place on Bush's watch. Not because the Bush administration was so omnipotent, but because it had regional credibility. The general perception was that the Bush Administration was on alert and supportive of allies. That is not at all the regional perception of the Obama Administration which doesn't seem to know what an ally is.
Obama's mistreatment of the UK, Israel and Honduras, the alienation of Karzai and continuing humiliation at the hands of China and Russia through diplomatic insults, showed weakness and stupidity. The Iranian takeover of the region is premised on that incompetence. Lebanon was a test. The next step was Tunisia. Then Egypt.
Iran has three major obstacles to regional dominance. Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Of these three, Egypt with its radicalized population, great poverty and limited influence in Washington D.C. was the most vulnerable. Any overthrow of Mubarak will move the Muslim Brotherhood closer to taking power. But for Iran the priority is to take Egypt out of the game. Whatever happens in Egypt, it will weaken the country. And what weakens Egypt, only strengthens Iran.
Turkey and Syria are part of Iran's regional coalition. Jordan appears to be leaning that way. Lebanon has been taken over. Iraq is set to fall when America leaves. If Egypt falls, that just leaves Saudi Arabia and Israel in the way. The Saudis will face domestic unrest, possibly from that alliance with Al-Qaeda that Bin Laden originally rejected. And there's a nuke with Israel's name on it somewhere in Iran. All this has happened because the Obama Administration has been too weak, confused and incompetent to stand for anything.
Iran is showing us its cards now, knowing that there's very little we will do about it. Its plans are moving forward. Ours are not only going nowhere, but actually helping the enemy.
Why did the Second Iranian revolution fail, while the revolts in Tunis and even Egypt seem to be gaining some traction? One element is foreign backing. No one outside the country provided support to the Iranian protesters. But the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt have not only Iranian backing, but also Western support. We provided training and political support to the "liberal" Egyptian pawns of the Islamists like El Baradei. And even now we're on the verge of endorsing a provisional government under a man who is allied to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Iran's backers in Russia and China did not in any way indicate a loss of support during the protests in its cities. But Obama has made it muddily clear that he doesn't really support Mubarak, certainly not Ben Ali. Rather than endorsing one side or the other, he tried to play both sides. A non-committal statement that communicates that we will support whoever wins. Which means that unlike Russia and China, we don't support the current regime. That withdrawal of support from our allies, translates into a win for the opposition. It's a tacit boost to efforts to overthrow the government.
The key determinant of whether a revolution will succeed in ousting a government is its staying power. The key players who make or break a revolution rarely go out into the street waving banners, at least not until they have an armed escort and the foreign photographers who conveniently snap photos of their best side. Those key players are the power brokers, tribal leaders, heads of the army and the intelligence services and leaders of various influential associations who don't choose sides until they have a pretty good idea which side will prevail.
The game of revolution is really about two sides trying to tote up how much support they each have. One side is the government, the other side is usually a coalition of factions who are pooling their resources in order to overthrow it. That leads to odd alliances and strange marriages between leftists and Islamists. Once the government is out, then the process will begin again with the coalition members playing the same game against each other.
The game takes place on several levels. Violent street protests are a show of force. Their purpose is to demonstrate that the government is weak and cannot control or subdue their protests. The riot police display dominance by trying to drive them away. These displays are common enough in the primate kingdom, but here they are dressed up in self-righteous rhetoric and riot gear. Whoever wins scores dominance points. If the riot police succeed, then they show that the government retains control over the cities. If they fail, then the protesters show that the government has lost control.
It doesn't matter how ruthless the government crackdown is. Brutality may create more enemies in the long run, but if it succeeds in controlling the cities, then the revolution cannot move forward. The politicians associated with the protests (and they're always there) become impotent and irrelevant. Men and women who gambled on a revolt and lost. They may become martyrs or they may find a way back into the government, depending on their own principles and whether the government is willing to have them. But brutality is also a sign of weakness. A last resort to maintain control. But it is also a sign of strength. A government that unleashes total violence on its own people demonstrates that it has staying power.
If the riots continue, the next step in this chess game is to call for the restoration of order. The politicians attached to the protest movements will claim to be the only ones who can calm the public's anger and restore order. The government will step up enforcement to show that it is perfectly capable of restoring order. Foreign diplomats will counsel the government to negotiate with the politicians representing the protesters. This is usually the last step in the dismantling of the government.
A government with staying power will refuse to negotiate and play the waiting game. A revolution runs off the energy of ongoing protests and street violence. But that energy is not a perpetual motion machine. Even with new government outrages, keeping the protests going takes dedication and resources. Eventually the casual looters and bored teenagers who fuel such protests go home. The working class men go back to work in order to feed their families. This leaves the protest core of middle-class and wealthy students exposed. They are the educated core of the protest movements, the ones who actually seem to know what they want. But they are also much easier to scatter and break than their poorer compatriots. Occasional protests will still go on, inspired by the events of that month, they may in time succeed in toppling the government, but only if it weakens significantly.
That means Mubarak might still survive, but our influence won't. The endorsement of Suleiman means that we won't see a dynasty of Mubaraks, which is probably a good thing, but also means that Egypt's secret police will call the shots in the future. The Cedar revolution has been swallowed up by Hezbollah. Lebanon will almost inevitably see another civil war, along with ethnic cleansing and possibly genocide. Jordan is falling under the Iranian umbrella. The days of the Hashemite kingdom are numbered. Imagine a Gaza four times the size of Israel. That's what we're on track for now.
Once Israel is bracketed in by enemies, an Islamist Turkey, a Muslim Brotherhood run Egypt and a Palestinian Jordan, and Iranian dominated Syria and Lebanon-- the game will move into its final stages. Iran needs to destroy Israel in order to prove its right to rule the region, but Israel is also one of the few points of agreement between Sunnis and Shiites. Iran's real foe is Saudi Arabia, but it can't act directly against it without bringing America into the game. If Iran can take Mecca, its leaders become the supreme authorities of Islam. Shiite control over Mecca might trigger a global Muslim civil war. Or a global accommodation.
If Iran can checkmate America in an armed conflict, it may have a chance. So it will try to initiate a limited conflict on its terms, once it has a nuclear deterrent to prevent the United States from escalating the conflict. A likely scenario is a regional version of the Korean War in a divided Iraq or Afghanistan, in which Iran plays the China role, overwhelming an undermanned US presence with a show of force and then negotiating an armistice. The goal will be for Iran to inflict enough damage on the United States to gain credibility as the ultimate Muslim superpower. And that would lead to some of the bloodiest battles since the Tet Offensive, with a courageous showing by American forces acting under severely restricted rules of engagement fighting a war that their government has already decided it can't win. Even if Obama is not in office by then, whoever is would be faced with a choice or prolonging a conflict against the Taliban/Mahdi Army to reclaim territory that the United States has already withdrawn from. It's not an enviable decision.
That is the path that Iran's leadership is following. We are being maneuvered into a tighter and tighter corner, with fewer and fewer allies left. The Middle East is being lost. And it's happening on Obama's watch.