Lion's Den: Four Middle Eastern upheavals

In Libya, Syria and Yemen, less so in Egypt, Islamists have significant opportunities to expand their power. How will Obama protect Western interests against this threat?

libyan rebels Bin Jawad_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
libyan rebels Bin Jawad_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 countries.
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 Belgium.
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 child-like.”
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.
Egypt: 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 Brotherhood.
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 poverty.
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 fighting al-Qaida.
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.
In Libya, 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 ( is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.