As we see Iraq and Afghanistan more and more in our rearview mirror, it’s no wonder that the American people and their representatives in Congress are eager to hit the accelerator. Although the history of these troubled countries and of the impact America has had on their future is still being written, the first draft is not a pleasant read. From the earliest days, our presence there has been stained by an inadequate grasp of the facts and realities on the ground—a failing that has led to costly miscalculation, backtracking, and lost treasure.
It’s a record that doesn’t inspire confidence that we’ll do much better if we venture into other lands remote to the values and the social, cultural, political, and historical reference points that guide our way of life. Yet, while acknowledging that “America is in a bad mood” when it comes to engagement, foreign correspondent Michael Totten argues in an essay appropriately titled “No Exit” that, despite the sometimes unpleasant and always unexpected consequences that have flowed from our post-9/11 initiatives, the US must remain involved, albeit more selectively and with greater calculation. In Egypt, for instance, Totten proposes that the US should leave the new military government to its own devices, observing that giving money and arms to Egypt’s current leader, General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, “will make us no friends but plenty of enemies, especially when his regime proves itself no more capable of halting Egypt’s free fall than the last one.” While being agnostic about Cairo, however, Totten makes a persuasive case that the US has ample incentive and reason to enthusiastically support Libya and its new government and the secular elements within the Syrian rebel forces, where unlike in Egypt, pro-American attitudes prevail and religious radicalism does not. In the wake of war and ongoing revolution in much of the Middle East, one of the most disturbing indicators that winter has set in is the plight of the region’s Christians, whose fate, though historically precarious, has become perilous as Islamists target them for a violent religious cleansing in which kidnappings, bombings, and executions are increasingly routine.
In “Forced Exodus,” former Time bureau chief Roland Flamini explains the historical, political, economic, and social backgrounds of this bloody religious war that takes place for the most part beneath the international community’s radar. This tragedy, inexplicably underreported in the West—otherwise so exquisitely sensitive to the oppression of the weak by the powerful—unfolds a little more tragically with each passing day. As Flamini notes, in addition to bloodshed and savagery, the violence against Christians has prompted an unprecedented exodus of their faithful from the region of their religion’s birthplace. In Iraq, for example, half of the country’s Christians, some four hundred thousand people, have fled in the decade of chaos that followed the US invasion. In Lebanon, as Hezbollah’s grip on power has strengthened, the once vibrant Christian population there has been similarly diminished.
Joshua Muravchik writes about another area of unacknowledged bigotry in the Middle East—that which threatens, rhetorically now but possibly atomically in the future, Israel’s existence and preps that possible battlefield by trying to stigmatize this democratic oasis as a rogue state. Muravchik has written frequently on the process by which the Israeli David has been turned into Goliath over the last four decades by its enemies. In this issue of World Affairs, he focuses on one of the venues where this process has been pursued most aggressively and successfully—the United Nations. His piece shows how the world body, falling under the sway of the third world and the so-called “non-aligned bloc,” has subjected Israel to an unceasing campaign of vilification intended to portray it as a rogue state—fascism with a Jewish face. The picture that Muravchik draws in marshaling unarguable evidence of the UN’s increasing hostility toward Israel is not a pretty one.
Also carrying out one of our Middle East investigations in this issue is Kristin Deasy, a Berlin-based freelance writer, who reports on her recent visit inside the Atmeh camp in northern Syria that is home to twenty-two thousand war refugees. Deasy’s dispatch introduces us to the challenges of managing the chaos and hardship in a camp controlled by rebels aligned with the Free Syrian Army, the forces believed to be the more moderate among those seeking to depose Bashar Assad in Syria’s fight to the death. Deasy’s account also offers a glimpse into the political chaos destined to characterize the war’s aftermath in a country with no tradition in self-government. After reading Deasy’s account, one suspects the picture will be challenging enough if the more moderate FSA-aligned forces eventually prevail. On the other hand, if the increasingly dominant terror groups operating in the resistance win out, mere chaos in postwar Syria will seem a paradise lost.
Just to the north in Turkey, where some five hundred thousand Syrians have sought refuge from the war in Syria, Sean Singer and Oray Egin each report on important aspects of the clash taking place between the forces of modernism and anti-modernism. Although passions run high and opposition is vented in street riots and too often met by abhorrent police brutality, this under-the-radar war in Turkey, a NATO member and EU aspirant, is mostly a war of ideas—absent the rockets, bombs, guns, and hundreds or thousands dead. While the battle doesn’t attract the same media attention as Egypt’s latest coup, Assad’s latest atrocity, or Iraq’s most recent episode of mass death via car bomb attack, the outcome of the struggle in Turkey’s fragile democracy will have greater long-range consequences because of the country’s unique status throughout the Middle East as a moderate alternative to Islamic fundamentalism and rule by mullah.
On to Tunisia and a perceptive essay by Oussama Romdhani, a self-described “remnant” of the discredited regime that was replaced during the false spring. Romdhani has written a penetrating and provocative piece that argues that there is an urgent need to rethink the road that North Africa’s post-revolutionary societies must travel to become hospitable toward democratic notions and traditions. Quoting one of Tunisia’s constitutional jurists, Romdhani observes, “The divide is not political, legal, or constitutional. It is existential.” In this view the past injustices and the suffering they wrought are deeply engrained in these societies and, until they are acknowledged and vetted in a process of national reconciliation, victimhood and vindictiveness will continue to “manacle” North Africa’s post-revolutionary societies to their pasts. “Without reconciliation,” Romdhani concludes, “the prospects for peaceful transition are nil.” He makes a good point.
We are heavy on Mideast pieces because that is where the international action is, but there are also journeys into different regions in this issue. For example, Peter Coclanis takes on the seemingly oxymoronic subject of “Buddhist terror” by looking carefully at Burma, a devoutly Buddhist country where, in an effort to quell opposition and co-opt the country’s dissenting activist monks in the 1990s, the former regime promoted a “Burma for Buddhists” movement that “combined Buddhist religious fanaticism with intense Burmese nationalism and more than a tinge of ethnic chauvinism.” Sparked in 2001 by the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, this movement has grown and its “nationalism” has morphed into anti-Muslim bigotry and terrorism. It might seem like a man-bites-dog story, but Coclanis uses the militant Buddhists who drive this conflict to look deeply into the Burmese present and future. Michael Weiss takes us to Russia and illuminates another variation of fanaticism at work, this time being demonstrated by the Putin government’s increasingly “brazen” outrages against democratic norms and activists, and its doing so with impunity and increasing disregard for opinion—domestic or international.
Weiss offers an excellent piece of investigative journalism that tracks the government-sponsored political prosecution and persecution of Aleksei Navalny and the protesters accused of provoking a riot at Bolotnaya Square, documenting the increasing hostility toward “any type of intellectual or political activity at all critical of the Putin regime.” That the West allows Putin to maintain a membership in the exclusive clubs that gather Western democratic leaders diminishes the clubs and the members. And finally, on a question that has enraged foreign governments, including some of our most valuable allies, as well as people here at home, the former head of US counterintelligence under President George W. Bush, Michelle Van Cleave, takes what might be a contrarian view given what she believes are some of the exaggerations that have taken hold about the NSA metadata gathering. Van Cleave tells us to hold our horses and consider the role this data gathering plays in our national defense. Some say that this is all about 1984. Van Cleave says it is about 9/11 and the need to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. We here at World Affairs believe that this is an argument, like those we hope the other pieces in the issue will prompt, that is worth having.
Let us know what you think.
— James S. Denton