After decades of stasis, the Middle East is in uproar. With too much going on to
focus on a single place, here’s a review of developments in four key
Libya: Although most Americans don’t quite realize it, their
government haphazardly went to war on March 19 against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya.
Hostilities were barely acknowledged, covered with euphemisms (“kinetic military
action, particularly on the front end”) and without a clear goal. Two Obama
administration principals were out of the country – the president in Chile, the
secretary of state in France. Members of Congress, not consulted, responded
angrily across the political spectrum. Some analysts discerned a
precedent for militarily attacking Israel.
Perhaps President Barack Obama
will be lucky and Gaddafi will collapse quickly. But no one knows just who the
rebels are, and the open-ended effort could well become protracted, costly,
terroristic and politically unpopular. If so, Libya risks becoming Obama’s Iraq
– or worse, if Islamists take over.
Obama wants the US to be “one of the
partners among many” in Libya, and wishes he were president of China, suggesting
that this war offers a grand experiment for the US government to pretend it is
I admit to some sympathy for this approach; in 1997, I
complained that, time and again, because Washington rushed in and took
responsibility for maintaining order, “the American adult rendered others
I urged Washington to show more reserve, letting others come
and request assistance.
That’s what Obama, in his clumsy and illprepared
way, has done. The results will surely influence future US policy.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces sponsored a constitutional referendum on
March 19 that passed 77-23%. It has boosted the Muslim Brotherhood as well as
remnants of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, while shunting aside the
Tahrir Square secularists. In so doing, the new military leadership confirmed
its intention to continue with the government’s subtle but long-standing
collusion with Islamists.
Two facts underpin this collusion: Egypt has
been ruled by the military since a 1952 coup d’état, and the so-called Free
Officers who conducted that coup had close ties to the military wing of the
The spirit of Tahrir Square was real, and may eventually
prevail, but for now it’s business as usual in Egypt, with the government
continuing Mubarak’s familiar quasi-Islamist line.
Syria: Hafez Assad
ruled the country for 30 years (1970-2000) with brutality and nonpareil
cunning. Seized by monarchical pretensions, he bequeathed the presidency
to his 34-year-old son, Bashar. Training to become an ophthalmologist,
Bashar joined the family business under duress only after the death of his more
capable brother Basil in 1994, basically maintaining his father’s megalomaniac
policies, and thereby extending the country’s stagnancy, repression and
As 2011’s winds of change reached Syria, crowds yelling Suriya,
hurriya (Syria, freedom) lost any fear of the ‘baby dictator.’ Panicked, Bashar
moved between violence and appeasement. If the Assad dynasty meets its demise,
this will have potentially ruinous consequences for the minority Alawi community
from which it derives. Sunni Islamists who have the inside track to succeed the
Assads will probably withdraw Syria from the Iranian-led “resistance” bloc,
meaning that any change of regime will have mixed implications for the West, and
for Israel especially.
Yemen: Yemen presents the greatest likelihood of
regime overthrow, and the greatest chance of Islamists gaining power. However
deficient an autocrat and however circumscribed his power, the wily Ali Abdullah
Saleh, in office since 1978, has been about as good an ally as the West could
hope for – notwithstanding his ties to Saddam Hussein and the Islamic Republic
of Iran – in exerting control over the hinterlands, limiting incitement and
His incompetent handling of the protests has alienated
even the military leadership (from which he comes) and his own Hashid tribe,
suggesting he will leave power with little control over who follows
him. Given the country’s tribal structure, the widespread distribution of
arms, the Sunni-Shi’ite divide, the mountainous terrain and impending drought,
an Islamist-tinged anarchy (as in Afghanistan) seems likely.
Syria and Yemen – but less so in Egypt – Islamists have significant
opportunities to expand their power. How well will Obama, so adamant about
“mutual respect” in US relations with Muslims, protect Western interests against
this threat? The writer (www.DanielPipes.org) is director of the Middle East
Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of