Monday, November 28, 2011

THE EAST IS A CAREER (Lord Macaulay)

The brushfire continues to inflame Arab countries.

While I was Ambassador in Egypt (1996/1999), Kamal Ganzouri was a for awhile President Hosni Mubarak’s prime minister. Likewise, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, today head of the Military Council, was then chief of the armed forces. I admit that we find ourselves in a transitional situation and promises have been made with regard to free elections now and the formation of an elected government. The names of Amr Moussa, former foreign minister (ego-maniac and brilliant real-politician), and of Mohamed ElBaradei, former AEIA head (distrusted by the Americans) are the ones most often linked to the future presidency. All this is an ominous signal that the “status quo” might unfortunately be a more predictable outcome rather than “change”, as would be the case if Ayman Noor were elected. How Egypt will conduct its external policy is a gamble few dare to predict. The Israelis must be biting their nails, rightly so. The “cold peace” held tenuously on an Egyptian thread.

Meanwhile, instability reigns in all corners and in all layers of society. The brilliant thesis of Edward Said with regard to the ambiguous relationship that is supposed to exist between the Orient and the West lies broken, as a result of a so-called Arab Spring aftermath which, coming after the two Iraq wars, leaves a landscape in tatters. It is becoming harder and harder to discern a hint of civilized behavior in this general uproar which is deleting history without making room for the future. One should reflect on this downfall wherein the ugly side of Jihadism fatally might prevail, with consequences for human rights, science, education and pluralism, which will be relegated to the dry-dock. Let’s face it, if the dictators go in the region, unlike what happened in Eastern Europe or Latin America, the situation might even get worse. There is no civil society which can step in. The socio-political wasteland that lies bare might as well be overtaken by a repetition of the same. There seems to be too little appetite for modernity, secularism or respect for otherness. Said was right insofar as, indeed, the West invented for its own consumption an Orient which only came to life in the paintings of Jerome and other Orientalist artists. Only Napoleon was Egypt’s Louis-Jacques - Mande Daguerre. However, he was less successful in his approach to the Muslim political and religious elites which he tried to accommodate. His efforts to find common ground backfired. It was to be expected that the French were seen as occupiers (sound familiar?) in spite of their cautious and respectful attempts to arrive at a dialogue between cultures the policy aborted. I believe that there has never been common ground, with the exception of short intervals where minorities in the Muslim lands received some sort of special status. The burka remains in fact the last wall standing and I see few cracks in the veil.

The events in the Arab world are diverse. The usual Western tendency, which tries to find logic in the chaos, is misguided, because Arab society thrives in noise, displacement and induced intellectual comas. The disparity of situations in the Levant sends a portentous message. The cancer has metastasized. The vote in Morocco is heard in Yemen, the blood in Syria cannot be contained behind its borders, the message in Tahrir Square early this year might already have been taken hostage by ulterior motives. The fallout of the NATO strike in Pakistan is creating a new vicious diplomatic nightmare which goes from bad to worse (“From Abbottabad to Worse”, in the words of Christopher Hitchens.) Meanwhile, Teheran continues the lying game and will soon play a mean version of a veiled Mary Poppins with a nuclear umbrella. Interestingly, the Arab League and Turkey have shown some muscle lately in the Syrian madhouse.

I often thought that Bernard Lewis’ rather pessimistic outlook regarding the Middle East was unfair. I start to think now that he was rather benevolent. One should be aware that involvement with an opportunistic and untrustworthy partner can lead to the most perverse consequences. The Lawrence of Arabia, Balfour, Curzon and Co. times are gone and we are left with allies who cheat, with hell at the borders and homegrown terrorism which lurks in the shadow of the Prophet’s teachings. I repeat again that we should keep our distance and measure our contacts in a utilitarian fashion, devoid of illusions of nation-building, trust or dialogue between civilizations. There is no longer room for such a Utopia since “there is no there there”. Let us not forget that even Egyptology was a Western adventure, done amidst the indifference of the obsessed by Friday prayer. The inroads of Edward Said are romantic incursions into a world which is not. Fouad Ajami tells it all in his masterpiece “The dream palace of the Arabs”.

Revolutions are seldom pleasant but the butcheries that are going on from Somalia to Syria and Libya are even more revolting, since blood is shed without any attempt to contain the slaughter. The slogans are dominos which might keep falling until the worse outcome prevails. Democracy is the starting point. Too often the “Finale” is the work of Jihad-ists in disguise. The US has been trapped in the wrong wars, making the wrong analyses and being socio-culturally unprepared (unlike Napoleon). It is more than time to stop this mad over-involvement. Technology and Intelligence are in ample supply to analyze, screen and follow-up events in the nuclear infernos of Pakistan or Iran.

Obama has already lost his capital in the region. It could not have been otherwise since overall incoherence proved to be stronger than the expected democratic unifying wave. There is no need to spend any longer, or to finance possible terrorists of tomorrow. I loved Egypt during my tenure there but day after day one could already foresee the acid rain coming, and the intelligentsia going underground. The Mubarak machine was corrupt to the core. The Raïs gave the Americans what they wanted so that Washington preferred to look in the other direction, while the prisons were overflowing. The West was not wrong turning its back on Mubarak. It just took too long (as is often the case) to seize the right “cool” moment when changes can still be implemented without too much collateral damage or undesirable outcome. Instead it acted when the house was on fire. The Libyan death march is a perfect example of a Western “pragmatism” which ended up by cozying up to a mass-murderer for the benefit of a barrel of oil. Now we live with the results of our collective Lockerbie amnesia !

It is time to reset our watches, to review our priorities and to unlock a new strategic outlook. We do not leave, nor shall we overspend again. The tectonic plates in the region must find a new equilibrium before we re-engage on our own terms, with a paucity of means and a well-defined modest purpose. After all, we do not belong there. Nor are we really that interested, but for selfish reasons that better remain unspoken. Blood is thicker than water, of which we have plenty and have every reason to keep it unpolluted.

No comments:

Post a Comment