In recent weeks, I’ve come across a number of high profile articles mulling over President Obama’s Switzerland-esque approach to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, as well as the wait-and-see stance adopted in relation to continued unrest in Egypt. A number of commentators, including Aaron David Miller of Newsday, believe that direct American intervention in Syria is inevitable. Likewise, writers such as Taimur Khan of The National proffers US keen to keep Egypt aid flowing as the driving force behind the administration’s reluctance to choose sides in the recent military-enforced ouster of President Mohammed Morsi.
There are no doubt sundry and diverse motives for taking a sideline approach to the series of implosions occurring in the larger Middle East. Doubtless some of these are cynically diplomatic or financial in nature. But from the perspective of an ordinary citizen, as much as it pains me to witness the bloodshed and terror experienced by people advocating for freedom and opportunity, values held in esteem by all varieties of free nations, I applaud the extreme caution exercised by President Obama and his team. For it wasn’t so many years ago that we collectively witnessed the pitfalls of presumptive intervention in the affairs of other nations (see: the George W. Bush administration), and we continue to suffer the ill financial and public relations effects of those decisions.
In the case of Syria, Miller points out, “Obama has avoided intervention not because he’s insensitive, incompetent, or even uninterested. He has done so because his options aren’t just bad, they’re terrible.” Although there can be no doubt that the unfolding situation in that country is a moral and humanitarian debacle, it cannot be taken as a given that the U.S. possesses the means and authority to set things right. Certainly not after the bungling swagger that was the American regime change offensive in Iraq, or the continued, resolution-less quagmire that Afghanistan has become. While Al Qaeda has suffered, the Taliban one could certainly argue, remains as tenacious as ever.
Miller continues, “The American experience in Afghanistan and Iraq looms large over the Syrian conflict. The parallel that’s worth paying attention to isn’t boots on the ground – it’s the question of connecting means to ends. In the Syrian case, the central question is: How does militarizing the American role – through providing arms to the rebels, creating a no-fly zone, or even launching military strikes – pave the way for a successful outcome?” And what, it must be asked, would be the collateral damage to our nation’s reputation in the Muslim world, a profile that President Obama has only just begun to repair after eight years of Bush II imperialism?
In Egypt, the situation is somewhat different, although the current American approach is the same. The Obama administration did in fact join protesting Egyptians in calling for the 2011 removal of President Hosni Mubarak, then supported the democratically elected regime of Muslim Brotherhood-backed Morsi. Yet scarcely a year later, Morsi is out amidst worsening social and economic conditions for Egyptian citizens. No less an authority than former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, told Newsmax: “We made a big mistake — I said it at the time — in forcing Mubarak out. He’s no Jeffersonian Democrat, but he was an ally of the United States and he supported the Camp David accord with Israel.”
No one can accuse President Obama of failing to learn from the recent past. In light of the quick and profound collapse of Morsi, America would do well to allow the Egyptians to decide the next steps for themselves, providing advice and assistance as requested.
Certain war hawks and plenty of other well-meaning folks who simply wish for a speedy end to international suffering would do well to remember that this is not World War II. We are not superheroes with unlimited human and financial capital and it is, in addition, the height of arrogance to assume that the Middle East requires saving when so many, many problems require our collective attention at home. Look to the Iraq and Afghanistan examples. By pushing for premature intervention in what may hopefully become nascent democracies, the most positive outcome could only be, at best, an expensive win-lose.