To understand the problem, one only needs to look at neighboring Lebanon.
After September 11, the reasonable thing to do would have been to take steps to save ourselves from Islamic terror. Instead, we went on a crusade to save Muslims from themselves. The latest stop on that crusade is Syria, where the foreign policy experts responsible for decades of horrifying misjudgments tell us that we are duty bound to save the Syrian people from their dictator.
Rarely do we ask why it is that Muslims so often need saving from their dictators. Or why a party that campaigned on improving America's reputation by promising not to bomb Muslims anymore, is now improving America's reputation by bombing so many Muslims and so often that it makes George W. Bush look like a tie-dyed hippie.
The Obama Administration has had a role in regime change in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya all in one year. Along with the other "Friends of Syria" it would like to bomb its way to regime change in Syria. The point of all this regime change is to replace totalitarian Muslim regimes with democratically elected totalitarian Muslim regimes on the theory that will make everyone happier.
The reason why Muslim countries end up with dictators can be seen in the streets of Libya where militias run wild and former members of the regime and anyone with black skin is dragged off the street for torture sessions and a bullet in the back of the head. Peel away the presidents, colonels and other suit-wearing tyrants fronting for an oligarchy, and that is what every Muslim country will be reduced to.
To understand the problem with Syria, one only need look at neighboring Lebanon where every attempt at coalition building between different religious and ethnic groups has gone badly over and over again. The ruling Alawites have to hang on to power because the alternative is to be an oppressed minority. The Sunnis have to strive for power because the alternative is to be an oppressed minority. This pattern repeats itself across the region.
To the extent that Western multiculturalism works, it does so because Europeans and their descendants have agreed to cede some power and privileges to minority groups while maintaining confidence in the rule of law to protect equal rights for everyone. Such a state of affairs is ridiculously inconceivable in the countries that we are assuming will adopt that same value system.
The only form of protection for a minority in the Muslim world is to either seize power or form a coalition with the ruling party. Such coalitions are inherently fragile because tribal instincts of race and religion always end up overriding agreements. Mohammed's treaties weren't worthless just because he was a duplicitous power-mad figure, but because all treaties are worthless in the region. After his death, Islamic succession wound up being settled with assassination and civil war among his own family members and allies.
Muslims look to Islam as a central unifying principle of universal allegiance, but it's nothing of the sort. It's actually an excuse for constant internecine violence. Islam adds another layer of allegiances and another excuse for infighting that did not exist previously. Underneath the robes and beards and Korans is yet another oligarchy with family mafias clutching their ill-gotten gains, as is the case in Iran and as will be the case in Egypt, where the Brotherhood has already gotten a head start.
Under conditions like this how can democracy exist as anything other than a temporary state of affairs? When there is an overwhelming majority in favor of one religion, it becomes nothing more than a rubber stamp for tyrants, as was the case in the Egyptian elections. When the country is sufficiently divided along religious lines, as is the case in Iraq, it becomes a prolonged struggle with both sides marking their positions and building their coalitions in preparation for a civil war.
Acting as if all this can be resolved with a few lessons on democracy is absurd, especially when such problems linger on even in the countries doing the teaching; just ask the Flemish or the Basque. Nations can only overcome such divisions when they have shared higher values to strive for. The only "higher value" there is Islam, and it is only another source of sectarian strife.
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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