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The modern state did not emerge overnight in Europe and while the colonization of the Middle East has left behind the facades of modern states which employ some of the ritual and custom of their colonizers, they are not modern states. Often they are not even states at all. They are clans operating in cities built for them by foreigners, using technology sold to them by foreigners and going through the motions of a republic built for them by foreigners.
Behind the facade, the clan trumps the state, religion trumps the state and the state exists mainly as a vehicle for the ambitions of influential families who run the whole thing for their own benefit while providing some subsidies to the rest of the country. Overthrow one family and another rises in its place. Some will be more horrid than others. Saddam was a monster even by the standards of the region. The Assads are worse than some, but better than others.
Taking down Assad will not save Syria. It will transfer power from the Alawites, a Shiite splinter sect, to the Sunnis and the Muslim Brotherhood. This won’t just be bad for the Alawites; it will be bad for the Christians and the other minorities still in Syria. In Egypt, the ethnic cleansing of the Copts has already begun, though the media won’t comment on it. In Syria there have already been some militia attacks. And it will only get worse.
Only one calculation should be used to determine whether we remove Assad from power and that is whether removing him from power will be good for us. It has been amply demonstrated to us that we cannot save Muslims from themselves. We cannot drag them a thousand years ahead in time just because they use cell phones and have prime ministers. Externally imposing progress does not work. Especially across cultures that have to make their own adaptations and their own journeys upwards.
The misbegotten crusade to save Muslims from themselves, to act as missionaries of democracy, has cost us more lives than September 11 and to no purpose. There was something noble about the belief that we could march our troops in, liberate a people from their tyrant, and their spirits would open up and a new world would be born. That belief, however, was rooted in a secularized religious ideal that was layered over with American exceptionalism. But the whole point of exceptionalism is that it is not universal. America is not the inevitable outcome. It is a series of accommodations and experiments that derive from a particular set of histories. It cannot be generalized or universally applied.
We cannot save Muslims from themselves. We can, however, save ourselves from their turmoil, their religiously influenced violence and their cultural instability. The more we try to reach out to them, the more we are at risk of importing their violence and instability.
The job of governments is not to sell our way of life to others. It is to protect that way of life from others. It is about time that we stopped being the world’s benefactor, psychiatrist and policeman, and began looking after our own interests first. That doesn’t mean isolationism. It doesn’t rule our friendships with other countries, but those friendships should be in our interest.
Like the homeowner who kicks out his family and fills his living room with drug addicts from the street, for too long the United States has pandered to the violent dysfunction of troubled countries and peoples, while neglecting its interests and allies. It has all but abandoned its traditional ties and become obsessed with fixing trouble spots. These bouts of social work have been expensive and they have not worked.
It’s time that we stopped trying to save people from themselves and began trying to save ourselves. While we have been teaching good government to others, our own government has become rotten. While we have spent money on others, we are running out of money. While we have taken in the huddled masses of the world yearning to take us for all we’ve got, our own lives and families are in danger.
A new age of terror is here. It’s time to face up to it. To stop saving Muslims from themselves and to work to save ourselves and our kin from them.
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