The giant sucking sound you here, I said on August 15 on CNBC’s The Kudlow Report, is the implosion of America’s influence in the Middle East. Vladimir Putin’s August 17 offer of Russian military assistance to the Egyptian army after US President Barack Obama cancelled joint exercises with the Egyptians denotes a post-Cold-War low point in America’s standing. Along with Russia, Saudi Arabia and China are collaborating to contain the damage left by American blundering. They have being doing this quietly for more than a year.
The pipe-dream has popped of Egyptian democracy led by a Muslim Brotherhood weaned from its wicked past, but official Washington has not woken up. Egypt was on the verge of starvation when military pushed out Mohammed Morsi. Most of the Egyptian poor had been living on nothing but state-subsidized bread for months, and even bread supplies were at risk. The military brought in US$12 billion of aid from the Gulf States, enough to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. That’s the reality. It’s the one thing that Russia, Saudi Arabia and Israel agree about.
America’s whimsical attitude towards Egypt is not a blunder but rather a catastrophic institutional failure. President Obama has surrounded himself with a camarilla, with Susan Rice as National Security Advisor, flanked by Valerie Jarrett, the Iranian-born public housing millionaire. Compared to Obama’s team, Zbigniew Brzezinski was an intellectual colossus at Jimmy Carter’s NSC. These are amateurs, and it is anyone’s guess what they will do from one day to the next.
By default, Republican policy is defined by Senator John McCain, whom the head of Egypt’s ruling National Salvation Party dismissed as a “senile old man” after the senator’s last visit to Cairo. McCain’s belief in Egyptian democracy is echoed by a few high-profile Republican pundits, for example, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Robert Kagan, and Max Boot. Most of the Republican foreign policy community disagrees, by my informal poll. Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld blasted Obama for undermining the Egyptian military’s ability to keep order, but his statement went unreported by major media.
It doesn’t matter what the Republican experts think. Few elected Republicans will challenge McCain, because the voters are sick of hearing about Egypt and don’t trust Republicans after the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Neither party has an institutional capacity for intelligent deliberation about American interests. Among the veterans of the Reagan and Bush administrations, there are many who understand clearly what is afoot in the world, but the Republican Party is incapable of acting on their advice. That is why the institutional failure is so profound. Republican legislators live in terror of a primary challenge from isolationists like Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), and will defer to the Quixotesque McCain.
Other regional and world powers will do their best to contain the mess.
Russia and Saudi Arabia might be the unlikeliest of partners, but they have a profound common interest in containing jihadist radicalism in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. Both countries backed Egypt’s military unequivocally. Russia Today reported August 7 that “Saudi Arabia has reportedly offered to buy arms worth up to $15 billion from Russia, and provided a raft of economic and political concessions to the Kremlin – all in a bid to weaken Moscow’s endorsement of Syrian President Bashar Assad.”
No such thing will happen, to be sure. But the Russians and Saudis probably will collaborate to prune the Syrian opposition of fanatics who threaten the Saudi regime as well as Russian security interests in the Caucasus. Chechnyan fighters – along with jihadists from around the world – are active in Syria, which has become a petrie dish for Islamic radicalism on par with Afghanistan during the 1970s.
The Saudis, meanwhile, have installed Chinese missiles aimed at Iran. There are unverifiable reports that Saudi Arabia already has deployed nuclear weapons sourced from Pakistan. The veracity of the reports is of small relevance; if the Saudis do not have such weapons now, they will acquire them if and when Iran succeeds in building nuclear weapons. What seems clear is that Riyadh is relying not on Washington but on Beijing for the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons. China has a profound interest in Saudi security. It is the largest importer of Saudi oil. America might wean itself of dependence on imported oil some time during the next decade, but China will need the Persian Gulf for the indefinite future.
A Russian-Chinese-Saudi condominium of interests has been in preparation for more than a year. On July 30, 2012, I wrote (for the Gatestone Institute):
The fact is that the Muslim Brotherhood and its various offshoots represent a threat to everyone in the region:
The Saudi monarchy fears that the Brotherhood will overthrow it (not an idle threat, since the Brotherhood doesn’t look like a bad choice for Saudis who aren’t one of the few thousand beneficiaries of the royal family’s largesse;
The Russians fear that Islamic radicalism will get out of control in the Caucasus and perhaps elsewhere as Russia evolves into a Muslim-majority country;
The Chinese fear the Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim people who comprise half the population of China’s western Xinjiang province.
But the Obama administration (and establishment Republicans like John McCain) insist that America must support democratically elected Islamist governments. That is deeply misguided. The Muslim Brotherhood is about as democratic as the Nazi Party, which also won a plebiscite confirming Adolf Hitler as leader of Germany. Tribal countries with high illiteracy rates are not a benchmark for democratic decision-making … As long as the United States declares its support for the humbug of Muslim democracy in Egypt and Syria, the rest of the world will treat us as hapless lunatics and go about the business of securing their own interests without us.
The Turks, to be sure, will complain about the fate of their friends in the Muslim Brotherhood, but there is little they can do. The Saudis finance most of their enormous current account deficit, and the Russians provide most of their energy.
Apart from the Egyptian events, American analysts have misread the world picture thoroughly.
On the American right, the consensus view for years held that Russia would implode economically and demographically. Russia’s total fertility rate, though, has risen from a calamitously low point of less than 1.2 live births per female in 1990 to about 1.7 in 2012, midway between Europe’s 1.5 and America’s 1.9. There is insufficient evidence to evaluate the trend, but it suggests that it is misguided to write Russia off for the time being. Not long ago, I heard the Russian chess champion and democracy advocate Gary Kasparov tell a Republican audience that Russia would go bankrupt if oil fell below $80 a barrel – an arithmetically nonsensical argument, but one the audience wanted to hear. Like it or not, Russia won’t go away.
American analysts view Russia’s problems with Muslims in the Caucasus with a degree of Schadenfreude. During the 1980s the Reagan administration supported jihadists in Afghanistan against the Russians because the Soviet Union was the greater evil. Today’s Russia is no friend of the United States, to be sure, but Islamist terrorism is today’s greater evil, and the United States would be well advised to follow the Saudi example and make common cause with Russia against Islamism.
In the case of China, the consensus has been that the Chinese economy would slow sharply this year, causing political problems. China’s June trade data suggest quite the opposite: a surge in imports (including a 26% year-on-year increase in iron ore and a 20% increase in oil) indicate that China is still growing comfortably in excess of 7% a year. China’s transition from an export model driven by cheap labor to a high-value-added manufacturing and service economy remains an enormous challenge, perhaps the biggest challenge in economic history, but there is no evidence to date that China is failing. Like it or not, China will continue to set the pace for world economic growth.
America, if it chose to exercise its power and cultivate its innate capabilities, still is capable of overshadowing the contenders. But it has not chosen to do so, and the reins have slipped out of Washington’s hands. Americans will hear about important developments in the future if and when other countries choose to make them public. Readers should be warned that those of us with reasonably good track records won’t do as well in the future.
My track record in general has been good. I warned in 2003 that the George W Bush administration’s attempts to build nations in Iraq and Afghanistan would have a tragic outcome. And in early 2006, I wrote: “Like or not, the US will get chaos, and cannot do anything to forestall it.”
In February 2011, I said that we did now know whether then-beleaguered president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt “will be replaced by an Islamist, democratic, or authoritarian state. What is certain is that it will be a failed state.” And in March 2011, I added about Syria, “We do not know what kind of state will follow Basher Assad. We only know that it will be a failed state.”
In April 2011, I declared Israel to be “the winner in the Arab revolts” because “the most likely outcome [in the Arab world] is a prolonged period of instability, in which two sides that have nothing to gain from compromise and everything to lose from defeat – the dispossessed poor and the entrenched elite – fight it out in the streets. Like Yemen and Libya, Syria will prove impossible to stabilize; whether Egypt’s military can prevent a descent into similar chaos remains doubtful.”
In January 2012, I announced a “recall notice for the Turkish model,” adding, “Among all the dumb things said about the so-called Arab Spring last year, perhaps the dumbest was the idea that the new democracies of the Arab world might follow the Turkish model.”
Now the dogs of war are loose and will choose their own direction. You don’t need foreign policy analysts any more. You can hear the dogs bark if you open the window.