Foreign Policy Funnies: Obama Administration Pivots on Syria
Published on: February 28, 2013
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  • WigWag

    “Let me try to put this delicately, although it’s not easy. We have before us the prospect that a large number of men (and even some women) who thoroughly hate the United States of America and all it stands for are getting ready to slice each other from dimple to duodenum. Most of these guys are not the least afraid of fighting, and they are by any realistic measure we’re familiar with not afraid of dying. So why not let them? There have been many fights in history in which, for all practical purposes, both sides have lost. With any luck at all, and with perhaps a few dirty tricks added in for insurance, this could be one of them. I know this will sound harsh to some, but consider it this way: We have stood aside for two years with our thumbs up our you-know-what while more than 70,000 mostly innocent people have been killed; so why not stand aside for a little longer so that some mostly hateful and dangerous people can get killed?” (Adam Garfinkle)

    A similar though admittedly less compelling argument can be made about Egypt. If Walter Russell Mead is right, the weakest political faction in Egypt is the liberals. The strongest factions are the two Islamist factions, the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood who have little love for each other.

    With the Egyptian economy imploding and facing imminent collapse might the best course of action for the United States be to stand aside and let Egypt tear itself apart. The United States could, if it wished, withhold economic and military aid and presumably it could hinder the IMF from approving any loan. Given it’s animosity to the Muslim Brotherhood a rescue package from Saudi Arabia or the wealthy Gulf States seems unlikely.

    I understand that the situations in Egypt and Syria are far from identical. The sectarian nature of the dispute in Syria is not recapitulated in Egypt and no particular faction in Egypt controls any particular region of the country.

    But putting aside the humanitarian concerns for a moment, is it possible that if the disintegration of Syria potentially has upsides for American strategic interests is it possible that there may be unexpected upsides for American strategic interests if Egypt collapses?

    Given the small chance that Egypt’s political liberals are likely prevail (not that there so great either) and given how horrendous the Salafists and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood are, is there any reason that we shouldn’t be standing on the sidelines rooting for if not promoting an Egyptian collapse?

    Just wondering.

    • Adam Garfinkle

      You’re right: Egypt is not the same as Syria in many, many ways. I’m not sure US interests fit with that sort of chaos in Egypt, but it may happen anyway. The Egyptian economy has tanked; unemployment for those under 30 is estimated at over 70%. This is part of formula for mass chaos and violence. We should be thinking about military contingencies just to protect Amcivs and to safeguard the security of the canal.

  • H.L. Mencken said it best in 1929: “The show remains engrossing, though it is no longer exhilarating. The horror of week after next will at least be a new one. It may be any one of ten dozen: I find myself vaguely eager to know which it is to be. Thus I advise against suicide. Life may not be exactly pleasant, but it is at least not dull. Heave yourself into Hell today, and you may miss, tomorrow or next day, another Scopes trial, or another War to End War, or perchance a rich and buxom widow with all her first husband’s clothes. There are always more Hardings hatching. I advocate hanging on as long as possible.”

    • Adam Garfinkle

      This is terrific, thanks so much. It’s been years since I bathed in Mencken’s genius–nice to be reminded of it.

  • dan berg

    Off topic (apologize), but….would like to know your response to Joshua Hammer’s article in NY Review of Books ref. Mali.

    • Adam Garfinkle

      Have not read it yet; been very busy.

      • Adam Garfinkle

        Now I’ve read it. I’m not sure what sort of response you’re looking for. SO I’ll make just two brief points. First, it’s good that journalists are going to Mali to write the first draft of history. Second, even in-country anecdotes are not the same as analysis.

  • Adam,

    The scenario you outline – with the central axis of the Syrian conflict shifting from regime vs assorted rebels to sunni extremists vs shi’i extremists – is both unlikely and not in US interest. It is unlikely because as soon as the Assad regime becomes weak enough to no longer to be the dominant player (so that Hezbollah strength becomes important in the military calculus), the regime is likely to buckle as the nut finally cracks and core elements head out the door in a stampede. It is also unlikely because the CIA has been coordinating weapons transfers with the result that even though they haven’t managed to keep arms out of al Nusra’s hands, the have managed to funnel enough to non-extremists so that these rebel groups are still dominant in the armed opposition.

    It is also not in US interest because this is not the First World War or the Battle of Karbala. That is, it is not as if opposing armies are going to wipe each other out. This is guerrilla war. With basically unlimited amounts of petrodollars and weapons flowing in, and an equally unlimited supply of manpower: if this scenario indeed comes about, it would mean the strengthening of both extremist groups. This may drag on for decades with shifting balances between warlords and instability emanating outwards towards important US clients with significant sectarians rifts: Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, even Jordan.

    You were right the first time. This needs to be contained now, before these dynamics become irreversible. This administration makes me want to wish that Bush was still in the White House.


  • Well, we’ll see, won’t we?

    I never said my scenario would not cause a whole lot of grief. It will. But all of the available alternatives–and there are very, very few–are no better. I was forced to think this through because the Obama Administration isn’t going to do anything effective. This is one big duck-and-cover drill in place of a superpower foreign policy.

    But as for likely, yes, I think a vicious Sunni radical vs Shi’a radical contest IS likely. As I say, we ‘ll see who’s right and who’s not sometime in, I’d say, the next 18 months.

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