Absent Without Leave

America's politicians are abandoning their responsibilities in the Middle East. What follows could be very dangerous.

In the late 1960s, Britain signaled the end of its long run as a world power by withdrawing from major military bases east of the Suez Canal. Today, as the White House confronts the crisis in Syria, could America be facing its own "east of Suez" moment?

The historical parallels aren't exact. Britain was an empire; the United States isn't -- despite the tendentious polemics of inveterate anti-Americans, from Noam Chomsky to Glenn Greenwald. Britain had already been surpassed by bigger superpowers by the 1960s. That hasn't happened to America and isn't likely to happen in the foreseeable future. But the debate over intervention in Syria has illuminated large and growing cracks in the internationalist consensus that has underpinned U.S. global leadership since World War II.

That consensus has been strained to a breaking point by feral partisanship and by a Republican Party increasingly in thrall to libertarian ideas. As a skeptical Congress awaits a possible vote on President Barack Obama's proposal to use military force against Bashar al-Assad's regime, the big question is whether the United States can still muster the internal cohesion to play a decisive role in world affairs.

In his prime-time address Sept. 10, Obama asked Congress to postpone the vote pending a possible deal with Russia that would transfer Syria's chemical arsenal to international custody. The scheme could spare Obama the embarrassment of being rebuffed by Congress, where sentiment against a U.S. strike has been hardening. But the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad's enabler and the U.S. president's tormentor in chief, is the one throwing Obama a political lifeline should give us pause about the deal's merits. To be sure, the deal would be good for Obama, allowing him to boast that his threat to use force compelled Assad to give up his chemical weapons. It might also earn Putin a Nobel Peace Prize. But it won't end the agony of the Syrian people, because it would leave Assad free to go right on killing them with conventional weapons.

If Washington forswears the use of force against Syria, as Putin is demanding, it will have paid a very high price for reinforcing the norm against chemical warfare. The Russian gambit, moreover, may founder on its sheer impracticality: Will Assad, his back to the wall, really give up his most fearsome weapon? And how will U.N. weapons inspectors be able to find and remove all the regime's chemical weapons in the middle of a war zone? Even from a purely logistical standpoint, the Russian proposal may be close to impossible.

As that drama plays out at the United Nations, the battle for the Republican Party's foreign-policy soul continues at home. Since the folly of isolationism was exposed in the 1940s, Republicans have rarely been reticent about projecting American power. On the contrary, they have advertised themselves as the party of military strength and unapologetic nationalism, especially after the Vietnam War provoked a schism within the Democratic Party over U.S. military intervention.

But that was then, when the Soviet bear lurked in the woods. Today's Tea Party Republicans are more concerned about the threat from Big Government. They've allowed the budget sequester to gouge big holes in U.S. defense spending -- cuts that former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warns "are weakening the United States' ability to respond effectively to a major crisis in the world beyond the war zone in Afghanistan." Meanwhile, the view that the United States should quit wasting money and lives trying to provide collective security, uphold liberal values, or sustain a parasitical international system has migrated from the libertarian fringe to the Republican mainstream.

While the anti-war left mostly avoids the barricades, it's arch-libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) who are leading the charge against Obama's proposed strike on Syria. "War should occur only when America is attacked, when it is threatened or when American interests are attacked or threatened," Paul wrote recently in Time. Ethnic cleansing? Genocide? Sarin gas attacks on civilians? Sorry, that's not our problem.

The libertarians' resolute anti-interventionism is of a piece with their demands for radical spending cuts and tax cuts. Both are predicated on the view that Washington needs to be cut down to size in order to prevent it from interfering with private markets, snooping on citizens, and intervening in foreign conflicts that don't concern the United States.

Although often couched in the language of realpolitik, this stance is really a kind of neo-isolationism. It posits that America can no longer afford to maintain military forces with global reach, that the very existence of such capabilities only tempts it to meddle fecklessly in other peoples' quarrels, and that the blowback from such global hyperactivism creates new enemies and feeds anti-American sentiment. That this critique sounds like it could belong to the anti-war left doesn't seem to bother the peaceniks of the right. Said Ron Paul, the grand old man of resurgent libertarianism: "I think there's a historic event going on here, and if this vote is won -- that is, defeat [of] the request to have more military approach to Syria -- I think it will be historic because it'll be a grand coalition of the libertarian Republicans and the Democratic progressives."

This improbable outbreak of Republican dovishness can be partly explained by reflexive partisanship: If Obama is for military intervention, it must be a bad idea. After previously flailing Obama for "dithering" while Assad massacred civilians, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) -- no doubt with an eye to the Republican Party's 2016 presidential nomination -- opposed Obama's plan to use force in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote. The usually hawkish Heritage Foundation, meanwhile, objects to a limited strike on Assad's forces so long as it's framed as a moral gesture, rather than a U.S. strategic necessity.

In fact, there's a strong case to be made that vital U.S. interests are on the line in Syria. What began as peaceful Arab Spring protests has morphed into a proxy war that cleaves the region along sectarian lines and has made Syria a magnet for jihadists. A flood of refugees threatens to destabilize neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. And if Assad prevails -- with the active backing of Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia -- it will be a huge setback for America's core security interests in the Middle East: banking the fires of Sunni extremism, shutting down Iran's nuclear program, and ensuring Israel's security. America's influence will shrink, Russia's will grow, and America's friends in the region will seek accommodation with the ascendant Iran-led axis.

Yet Obama has made no such case. He's counting instead on fear of -- and moral revulsion against -- weapons of mass destruction to sway the minds of lawmakers -- ironically, the same tactic George W. Bush used to get the United States into Iraq (though Obama, at least, appears to have better intelligence). By forswearing the goal of regime change and stressing a limited strike -- "unbelievably small," in Secretary of State John Kerry's now infamous slip of the tongue -- designed to punish and deter Assad, Obama has won support from some prominent liberals, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Howard Dean.

But many other liberals aren't buying the case for war, and the fact that Obama has radiated ambivalence over Syria for the past two years hasn't helped his cause. In insisting on a punitive strike, he's making America look like some kind of Victorian headmaster, paddling miscreant schoolboys to teach them a lesson. But Assad is no schoolboy. He's a ruthless tyrant who is daily committing atrocities against unarmed civilians in Syria -- with and without sarin gas. Like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Assad is Syria's ultimate weapon of mass destruction.

By all means, let's test his willingness to yield his chemical weapons. But Washington should also make a serious commitment to providing non-extremist Syrian rebels the weapons, training, intelligence, and other support they need to either topple Assad or force him to the table for a negotiated settlement. That wouldn't require U.S. boots on the ground, congressional authorization, or a green light from the U.N. Security Council. But it would advance U.S. security interests in the region while also reinforcing international laws against waging war on civilians, by whatever means.

Unfortunately, the baleful legacy of the "Iraq syndrome" hangs over this administration, whose spokesmen run like scalded dogs from any suggestion that "regime change" should be the U.S. goal in Syria. This means that, if the Russian deal falls through, Congress will face an unpalatable choice between authorizing a militarily meaningless strike and undermining the commander in chief. "The refusal to authorize force would be taken as an ideological pivot point," argues former Bush White House aide Michael Gerson in the Washington Post. "Nations such as China, Russia and Iran would see this as the triumph of a political coalition between the peace party of the left and the rising isolationists of the right. And they would be correct."

If this coalition gets its way, the resulting retraction of American power will leave the international system rudderless. When Britain pulled back from the East, it could count on the United States to fill the vacuum. But if America disengages, from the Middle East or elsewhere, there's no powerful democracy waiting to take its place.

ALEX WONG/Getty Images


Return to the Bad Old Days

Will Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood fan the embers of Islamic insurgency?

In October 1990, extremists affiliated with the terrorist organization Egyptian Islamic Jihad raked Abdel Halim Moussa's motorcade with gunfire. Moussa, the newly-appointed interior minister, survived, but the speaker of Egypt's lower house of parliament, Rifaat el Mahgoub, was not as lucky. Islamic Jihad, the group responsible for President Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981, would try to kill Moussa three more times in as many years. Had it not been for the Algerian Civil War, which claimed approximately 100,000 lives between 1992 and 1998, more attention would likely have been paid to the insurrection that raged in Egypt during the same period. Between the first attempt on Moussa's life and the infamous Luxor massacre seven years later, roughly 1,600 people were killed in a conflict between the Egyptian state and Islamist extremists -- 1,100 in 1993 alone. So when Egypt's current interior minister, Mohammed Ibrahim, survived a car bombing in the Nasr City area of Greater Cairo last week, there was a palpable sense of dread among those with even a passing familiarity with recent Egyptian history. Are the 1990s back in Egypt? It is a distinct possibility.

The irony of the multiple attempts on Moussa's life lay in the fact that he was a relative moderate -- at least by the standards of the police generals who have led Egypt's notorious Interior Ministry over the years. After a period of stepped up repression in the late 1980s, Moussa adopted a more nuanced approach, seeking to bring Egypt's extremist groups to heel through a combination of force and dialogue. The strategy did not work. 

The violence continued throughout most of the 1990s, subsiding after one last shootout between Islamic Jihad's twin, al Gama'a al Islamiyya, and the police in September 1999.  Although the main players of this period either morphed into al Qaeda or mellowed out during long prison terms, extremism never fully disappeared from Egypt. Hosni Mubarak's general neglect of the Sinai Peninsula -- a policy that raised concerns in Washington and Tel Aviv -- gave militants a refuge from whence they continued to wage periodic attacks. It is little surprise, then, that the group claiming responsibility for last week's attack on Mohammed Ibrahim, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, is a jihadist organization made up primarily of Bedouin tribesmen that has been operating in Sinai and the Gaza Strip for years. Speculation in Cairo is that the same group is responsible for yesterday's double suicide bombing in the border town of Rafah that killed at least nine soldiers. Clearly, the Egyptians have a major problem on their hands that is all too reminiscent of the violence that shook the country two decades ago.

The reasons for Moussa's failure to rein in extremism through dialogue back in the 1990s bear directly on Egypt's current tribulations -- and the potential for a new period of sustained insecurity and violence. The ideological framework through which both Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al Gama'a al Islamiyya viewed the world made compromise with the Egyptian state nearly impossible. This was, after all, a group of extremists who were less than a generation removed from the death of Sayyid Qutb, the most prominent intellectual father of modern Islamic extremism. Many who sought Qutb's guidance in prison in the late 1950s and 1960s eventually broke with the Muslim Brotherhood and -- along with hardliners like Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qaeda, and Aboud al Zomor, the Gama'a leader who later served 30 years in prison for his role in Sadat's assassination -- became the core of those who sought to abolish man's law in favor of God's through jihad. This is precisely what Islamic Jihad and Gama'a were doing when they targeted government ministers, intellectuals, foreign businessmen, and tourists between 1990 and 1997.

Much has changed in Egypt over the last two decades -- but much has also stayed the same. In 1998, al Jihad merged with al Qaeda, forming an alliance that continues to threaten spectacular violence. The leadership of al Gama'a that did not escape the country in the 1990s, by contrast, renounced violence from prison. Following the January 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, Zomor and others were released and subsequently established a political organization, the Building and Development Party, which participated in the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections as part of an alliance known as the Islamic Bloc. In June of this year, President Mohamed Morsy sought to appoint Adel el Khayat, a member of Gama'a, as governor of Luxor -- an astonishing move given the organization's 1997 massacre of 58 tourists at the Temple of Hatshepsut, located in that governorate. There is reason to believe that Gama'a's transformation is not entirely complete, having at times hinted that it would resort to violence to implement sharia law. Regardless, there are many other extremist groups in Egypt that challenge the authority of the state in ways reminiscent of the 1990s. They have no affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood, but during Morsy's brief tenure as president the problem of militancy was at best neglected and at worst tolerated.

Much of the recent violence has occurred in the Sinai Peninsula, where extremists of different stripes -- including al Qaeda sympathizers, Palestinian extremists, angry Bedouin tribesman, and takfiris who have withdrawn from Egyptian society to live according to fundamentalist principles -- operated, until recently, with relative impunity. Beginning in 2011, there has been a steady stream of attacks on police stations and other government infrastructure. Kidnappings are also on the rise. The violence has been such that 11 Egyptian battalions are now operating in the Sinai -- with Israeli permission -- in an effort to gain control of the region.

The Sinai is of great concern to many Egyptians, but it is not Nasr City. The possibility that the interior minister was targeted last week as a result of the government's crackdown on Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo is deeply unsettling. It suggests that Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, the group whose funding from the Muslim Brotherhood Zawahiri's brother coordinates and which is claiming responsibility for the recent violence, has drawn the opposite lesson from recent history as al Gama'a al Islamiyaa.* Instead of being drawn into the political process through an equivalent of Gama'a's Building and Development Party, Egypt's current crop of extremists appear to have doubled down on their commitment to violence -- a development that portends a renewed period of insecurity in the country.

It is not just the worldview of extremists that should worry Egyptians, but also the way in which primarily young men come to embrace this worldview. Something called the repression-radicalization dynamic contributed to Abdel Halim Moussa's failure to bring extremists under control in the 1990s. Today, it imperils Egyptians once again by hastening the development of new cadres of young men willing to take up arms against the state. Moussa sought dialogue shortly after his predecessor, Zaki Badr, undertook a wave of repression that included mass arrests and torture. At the time, Egypt's universities were a hotbed of Islamist militancy under the sway, in particular, of Gama'a's Omar Abdel Rahman, the "Blind Sheikh" who is now serving a life sentence in an American prison for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. As a result, by the time Moussa extended his olive branch, the political arena was further radicalized -- filled with angry young men convinced that their only way to seek redress was through violence. As the government systematically undermines the Muslim Brotherhood through arrests -- and uses an increasing amount of force in an effort to establish control following the July 3 coup -- the policy has produced only more violence.

Between Mohamed Morsy's ouster; the subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood; and the arrests, intimidation, and killing of more than 900 Brotherhood supporters (and more than 100 policemen) over the last 10 weeks, it is not hard to imagine that some will decide that they have no choice but to use violence. Yesterday's suicide bombing in Rafah, on the border with Gaza, is yet another ominous sign of what is to come in Egypt. And the Brotherhood's narrative of the summer of 2013 is clear: The organization abided by the democratic rules of the game and won legitimately, but the forces that control the coercive instruments of the state -- in collusion with the losers of parliamentary and presidential elections -- forced them from power. It matters little that this account is shorn of context and that the Brotherhood's own disregard for democratic politics, good governance, and human rights is ignored. The message to would-be extremists comes through loud and clear.

The Brotherhood's leadership -- at least those that remained at large in the immediate aftermath of the coup -- were clearly leveraging the repression-radicalization dynamic by invoking the language of martyrdom and making implicit threats of violence during the height of the Rabaa al Adawiya sit-in. It may very well be that the coup and the subsequent repression sounded the death knell of the Muslim Brotherhood, but the many supporters of the coup, the government, and the military officers currently running Egypt should take cold comfort in that outcome. A Brotherhood that is dying, on the run, and whose leaders are increasingly cut off from their followers, is likely to produce factions and offshoots that are violent. In one ominous sign, Nabil Naeem, one of the founders of Islamic Jihad, told the Egyptian daily al Masry al Youm that the Brotherhood is funding Ansar Bayt al Maqdis. As of yet, there is no evidence that any violent factions have formed from within Brotherhood ranks, but it is still early and disillusioned Brothers might readily link up with existing extremist groups.

There is historical precedent for this, and not just following President Gamal Abdel Nasser's crackdown on the Brotherhood in the wake of the October 1954 assassination attempt in Alexandria's Manshiya Square. In November 1948, for example, Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmy Nuqrashi outlawed the Brotherhood, which, in turn, compelled the organization's armed secret apparatus to exact revenge, notably by assassinating Nuqrashi. History is never a perfect guide to the present, but it can provide insights into what we might reasonably expect. In this case, it seems entirely plausible that this summer's takedown of the Brotherhood and the recent spate of bombings and attacks including the attempt on Mohammed Ibrahim's life are harbingers of violence to come.

The political upheaval in Egypt over the summer has led a fair number of observers to wonder whether Egypt is heading down the Algerian road of the 1990s. It's possible, but it seems more likely that Egypt will repeat its own past rather than that of one of its North African neighbors. Sadly, it seems that last week's assassination attempt and yesterday's bombings may represent the opening shot in another low-level insurgency.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly and inadvertently stated that Ayman al Zawahiri's brother leads the group Ansar Bayt al Maqdis. It is the group's funding from the Muslim Brotherhood that, it is claimed, Ayman al Zawahiri's brother led the coordination of, not the group itself. FP regrets the error.