The Arabs Will Have Their Gettysburgs

A more hands-off Middle East policy—like Great Britain's approach to the Confederacy—is worth weighing.

This month Americans marked the 150-year anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, an event seen by many historians as a decisive victory for the Union and a turning point in the Civil War.

Indeed, hope among the leaders of the Confederacy for diplomatic recognition by Britain and other Europeans powers dissipated after the Union victory at the battle. While Great Britain remained neutral during the U.S. Civil War, Confederate leaders planned to secure independence through a strategy of drawing Britain (and France) to their side through diplomatic support and military intervention.

Although the British had abolished slavery in 1833, the government in London and the business elites sympathized with the Confederacy. Unlike America’s current political and intellectual elites, the British leaders expressed no moral reservations about pursuing what they saw as their national interest—containing the U.S. rise to supremacy in the hemisphere—as opposed to elevating the abolition of slavery worldwide to the top of their foreign-policy agenda.

In a way, any British effort to end the Civil War before Gettysburg would have changed the course of that war, and, by extension, American history. In such a counterfactual scenario, there wouldn’t have been a United States. And the historical narrative of the nation (or two nations) would have been quite different from the one being taught in American schools today, which is based on the notion that the Civil War amounted to a birth of the nation and that the abolition of slavery was necessary, if not inevitable.

From that perspective, those urging that Washington use its diplomatic and military power to intervene in the civil strife engulfing the Arab World today—whether it’s the civil war in Syria or the struggle over power in Egypt—seem to assume that the historical narrative of the people of the Middle East has already been written.

As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius writes, “America needs to stay engaged with moderate political forces in the Middle East all the time; the region is at the beginning of a long slog to justice and democracy, with many reversals along the way.” The United States, he concludes, “doesn’t have the luxury of sitting this process out.”

But the Middle East is a huge region with millions of people, as well as many nationalities, ethnic groups, religious sects and tribal groups. Thus before making predictions and calling on Washington to draw a strategy based on them, its useful to recall that not long ago many believed the ousting of Saddam Hussein and the launching of the Freedom Agenda would create the conditions for democratic institutions in Iraq and the rest of the Arab World.

There was clearly much reason to be bullish about the prospects for the rise of liberal-democratic governments in Europe and its peripheries in the aftermath of the Great War and collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. After all, the autocratic Russian czar, the warmongering German kaiser and the decadent Turkish sultan were no more, and U.S. president Woodrow Wilson was promising to “make the world safe for democracy.”

That we ended up a few years later with a Communist dictatorship in Russia, a monstrous Nazi regime in Berlin and a never-ending mess in the Middle East should serve as warning to all those who believe that we are in the midst of the March of Progress in the Middle East—and that once again, America could help plant the seeds of democracy.

In fact, during most of their involvement in the region the Americans have never been in the business of exporting democracy to the region. Even President Jimmy Carter, who advocated promoting human rights worldwide, hosted the Shah of Iran as well as other Middle Eastern autocrats in the White House at a time when the main U.S. interest was to contain the Soviet Union and its regional satellites.

The U.S. relationship with Egypt was part of this set of Cold War-era geostrategic considerations and explains why Washington invested so much in economic and military assistance in that country. In fact, helping mediate the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel was part of reducing the costs of U.S. diplomatic engagement in the Middle East and ensuring that both countries could become part of a pro-American bloc.

It’s not clear why the United States needs to pour the same level of financial and military aid into Egypt today, when U.S. interests in the Middle East are in flux—and it is unclear to what extent (if at all) Egypt is helping advance them.

Moreover, the notion that the United States is pouring money and weapons into Egypt in order to secure the Israeli-Egyptian peace is nothing more than an urban foreign-policy myth. It assumes that Egypt has the capacity, or even the will, to launch a war against Israel, and that only American bribes are preventing them from doing that.

In fact, the peace between Egypt and Israel reflects the current balance of power between the two nations, and their recognition, going back to the aftermath of their 1973 war, that neither could win a military conflict.

It’s absurd to think that Egypt will abrogate its peace accord with Israel and take steps to confront it on the battlefield at a time when its government is presiding over a bankrupt economy and cannot even feed its own people.

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