Two weeks ago, I criticized the Obama administration for its failure not only to foresee this crisis but also to have any kind of coherent grand strategy to cope with it—resulting in a period of hapless confusion in American foreign policy. A number of critics wondered what such a coherent strategy might have looked like. The answer is this.
For many years U.S. administrations tried to have it both ways in the Middle East, preaching the merits of democratization while doing next to nothing to pressure the region’s despots to reform, provided their misbehavior remained within tolerable limits (no invading Israel or Kuwait, no acquiring weapons of mass destruction). The Bush administration put an end to that double-talk by practicing as well as preaching a policy of democratization—using force to establish elected governments in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Obama administration was elected by a great many Americans who regretted the costs of that policy. Yet in place of the Bush doctrine came… nothing. Obama’s obsequious 2009 speech in Cairo offered a feeble hand of friendship to the Muslim world. But to whom was it extended? To the tyrants? Or to their subject peoples? Obama apparently hoped he, too, could have it both ways, even shaking hands with the odious Muammar Gaddafi.
The correct strategy—which, incidentally, John McCain would have actively pursued had he been elected in 2008—was twofold. First, we should have tried to repeat the successes of the pre-1989 period, when we practiced what we preached in Central and Eastern Europe by actively supporting those individuals and movements who aspired to replace the communist puppet regimes with democracies.
Western support for the likes of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia and Solidarity in Poland was real. And it was one of the reasons that, when the crisis of the Soviet empire came in 1989, there were genuine democrats ready and waiting to step into the vacuums created by Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Sinatra Doctrine” (whereby each Warsaw Pact country was allowed to do things “its way”).
No such effort has been made in the Arab world. On the contrary, efforts in that direction have been scaled down. The result is that we have absolutely no idea who is going to fill today’s vacuums of power. Only the hopelessly naive imagine that thirtysomething Google executives will emerge as the new leaders of the Arab world, aided by their social network of Facebook friends. The far more likely outcome—as in past revolutions—is that power will pass to the best organized, most radical, and most ruthless elements in the revolution, which in this case means Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood.
The second part of our strategy should have been to exploit the divisions within the Islamist movement. These are very deep, most obviously because Shiite Iran has an altogether different vision of an Islamicized Middle East than, say, Wahhabi al Qaeda. As I write, the Iranians have made their most brazen move yet by sending two warships through the Suez Canal into the eastern Mediterranean. This should not worry only Israel. It should also worry Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who dreams of a revived Ottoman Empire as the dominant power in the region.
In the absence of an American strategy, the probability of a worst-case scenario creeps up every day—a scenario of the sort that ultimately arose in revolutionary France, Russia, and China. First the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East could turn much more violent, with a death toll running into tens or hundreds of thousands. Then they could spark a full-blown war, claiming millions of lives. Worst of all, out of that war could emerge an enemy as formidable as Napoleon’s France, Stalin’s Soviet Union, or Mao’s China.
Yes, Americans love revolutions. But they should stick to loving their own.