With the Arab Spring, we are witnessing an important moment in history. The political and social landscape of the Middle East is shifting before our eyes like the shifting sands of the Arabian Desert. From our vantage point, locked in the present, however, we cannot see what the lay of the land will be when the dust settles.
We can, though, take a critical look at the role that we are playing in the changes and ask when is it right for the United States to use its military might to support or to cast down the sovereign government of a foreign nation. We can also look at examples from both near and distant history and try to draw parallels between those outcomes and what might happen today.
Barry Strauss is the Chair of the Department of History at Cornell University and is an expert on military history in particular. I spoke with him recently and asked him if it is possible to really understand the consequences of American interventions in far off places.
We have played an active role in military interventions, most recently in Libya, although a more moderate role there, but also Afghanistan, Iraq, and others, even some small Caribbean nations that could never be a threat to us. We've used military force to exert our influence or power over other nations, so if we were to adopt a... less aggressive, I guess, stance regarding military intervention would that have a negative effect on military power overall?
Good question. Well, if the United States is going to continue playing this role as a hegemonial power or, if you will, an empire and an empire for liberty [as Thomas Jefferson once called our nation], then, unfortunately it does have to engage in military interventions, although certainly it's wise to limit that as much as possible. I think that American governments do try to do that. If the United States were to say, for instance, that we'll never intervene militarily abroad again, under any circumstances, yes, I think that would have negative consequences. By the same token, nobody will disagree with the notion that the United States should be cautious in intervening militarily abroad.
There were some people who said that the U.S. should never intervene in a place like Iraq, but I think that most of the opponents said, "Look, on certain occasions U.S. military intervention is justified and warranted, but this isn't one of those occasions." I think there was a very responsible debate among people on that issue. Likewise, in Libya, as you say, the U.S. stance is a very limited military intervention. There are people who debate there whether we should be involved militarily at all.
I guess it'd be nice if the United States were less involved militarily abroad, but sadly, all too often, it's necessary.
When we look at the causes of those interventions, you can argue whether you believed that there were weapons of mass destruction aimed at the United States in Iraq or not, but when you look at Libya, for example, a lack of success by the Libyan uprising would have caused no greater threat than currently existed from Libya so, in effect, we are not intervening to protect ourselves, but for ideology, really. We believe that liberty or freedom is a basic right, so we're intervening to forward that ideal even without direct interests.
I guess I think there is some truth in what you're saying, but I would tweak it some. There have been a number of times over the last decades when Gadhafi had been an enemy of the United States. Clearly, he's been tamed to a certain extent and there are those who say there's no point in fighting this guy now because he's no longer bothering us. There are others who would say that we don't know what he's going to do in the future, or what his sons are going to do if they replace him. He has a very bad track record.
More importantly, the United States wants to be a friend of the Democracy movement in the Arab world. Remember that the semi-intervention took place within the context of the Arab Spring with the revolt in Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, and later the revolt in Syria. So, the argument in favor of a semi-intervention in Libya is that we want to get ourselves on the right side of history in this part of the world, both because of our interests and because of our ideology. If you remember, there was concern of a bloodbath if Gadhafi's forces would have conquered the rebel strongholds in eastern Libya. So, I think it did involve America's self-interests as well as American ideology.
There are other countries where there are ongoing bloodbaths, or similar potential for them, at least, like Syria, where we don't intervene.
Because, for whatever reason, we have ended up on the wrong side of that rebellion, in having an ally as the [sitting] government, in some cases an ally, like Bahrain, but where we haven't had previous encounters as we have with Libya that might goad us into action.
Well, true. I mean, the U.S. government has recently protested quite a bit about the action of the Syrians and there's been a lot of speculation about what's going on behind the scenes with the Assad forces. It's clear that Turkey is getting involved, and I'd love to know what conversations are going on between the Turkish government and the U.S. government.
You're certainly right that the U.S. government has not come out anything like it did in the case of Mubarak. The U.S. government has not come out and said Assad must go in the way that we said Mubarak must go.
In your opinion, what's the reason for that?
That's a good question. Part of the reason, I think, is that we have more influence over Egypt that we do over Syria because of the enormous amount of aid that we give to Egypt. My guess, and this is just my guess, is that a lot of people in the U.S. government have put a lot of effort into rehabilitating Assad who clearly is, at least, a more agreeable person than his father was. There are a lot of people that hoped he would bring reform to Syria.
There is another issue that probably should be mentioned and that's that there is a lot of concern over what a post-Assad Syria would look like. I think, in Egypt there are many people who feel that the transition will be softened by the military because the Egyptian military is very strong and plays a role as a defender of the regime in Egypt. We're not likely to see, for instance, an immediate take-over by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt because the military is there to act as a buffer. I mean, we hope very much that there's going to be a continuing movement in Egypt towards democracy. Probably there's going to be a bumpy road, but the military is there to play a role. The population is relatively homogeneous. The big worry, of course, is the status of Christians in Egypt. Clearly, there's a bit of a threat.
[Related: Who's really running things in Egypt?]
In Syria, I don't think the military plays quite the same role as defender of the regime. For another thing, there's really a substantial worry about what would replace Assad, or whether disorder and violence would replace Assad in a big way were he to go. So that's one difference between the two places.
Another difference is that there is a really big potential for violence in Syria and the United States is trying to speak softly in order to do what it can to decrease the violence and certainly not to stir it up in any way. You know, the Syrian government has estimated that they have killed about 1400 protesters already. In American terms this would be many times more than 1400 people killed by the government, presumably [it would be equivalent to] tens of thousands of people [in America]. It's a very distressing situation.
When you look at Egypt, both before and after the uprising it was and is ruled by the military-industrial complex. Mubarak may have been analogous to the chairman of that group, but replacing him with another guy from the same system is not going to be a fundamental change. There may be some incremental improvements, but the same group is still in charge. Companies replace their leaders all the time, but the over-riding corporate culture remains the same. Has there really been a revolution at all?
Well, that's an excellent point and, certainly, I think that needs to be brought up in response to anyone who says everything's great now in Egypt. Now that we've had a revolution we're on the road to democracy. It's going to be a long road. It's going to be a bumpy road. I agree with you that a certain amount of skepticism is called for and, yet, when all that is said, I think there have been important changes.
I think that there's a broad swath of opinion in Egypt that's now on record in favor of change and more open elections than anything the Egyptians have had before. I don't think the military could continue a Mubarak-style repressive government in Egypt, because if they did, there would be a lot of demonstrations and there'd be a lot of violence. They would end up having to have the kind of crack-down along the lines of what Assad is doing in Syria. I think what we're likely to see is some movement on the road to democracy. It's not going to happen overnight. The military is going to continue to play a big role in the regime.
One model that people have talked about is the Turkish model in which the military played a big, big role in Turkish government for a long time and for decades, Turkey had a quasi-democracy and a quasi-parliamentary system. It was very far from ideal, but it was a whole lot better than what was on offer in that part of the world. Nowadays, Turkey has a genuine democracy and a genuine parliamentary system.
In order for that to happen, it took decades, and it took a lot of changes in the country's political culture and in the Turkish economy and Turkish society. There are growing pains. There are issues. There are questions as to whether Erdogan and his government in Turkey are really committed to diversity or whether they represent some kind of stealth Islamism. There are still political prisoners in Turkey, there are still people being put in jail for expressing their opinions. It's far from ideal, but they have really made a lot of progress. It's really impressive. We can be encouraged.
I think on the whole, we can hope for something like that in Egypt, but the story hasn't been written yet. It's possible things will go wrong, but I wouldn't be so cynical as to say 'well, nothing much changed. They got rid of one head guy and they're just going to replace him with another head guy when tempers have cooled down and it's safe to do so.'
Thinking about the Arab Spring, are there any historical parallels where a broad set of countries all in a row have all risen up at once like this?
Sure, you think of Europe in 1848 or, for that matter, Europe in 1989. Those are both parallels, cases where a broad series of countries, all in a row, as you say, have all risen up at once. Usually, unfortunately, things don't turn out as well as it looked like in the beginning, and usually it's a longer process.
Brad Sylvester is a freelance writer/ journalist frequently published at Yahoo! News and other online outlets. Follow Brad on Twitter @Sly102.
- military-industrial complex
- military history
- weapons of mass destruction
- the Middle East
- military force
- Arabian Desert
- the Arab world
- the United States