The announcement, following the use of chemical weapons in Syria, of an emergency summit in Jordan this week of military leaders from the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar is a welcome development. Western policy is at a crossroads: commentary or action; shaping events or reacting to them.
After the long and painful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, I understand every impulse to stay clear of the turmoil; to watch, but not to intervene; to ratchet up language, but not to engage in the hard, even harsh business of changing reality on the ground. However, we have to understand the consequences of wringing our hands instead of putting them to work.
People wince at the thought of intervention, but contemplate the consequences of inaction and shudder: Syria, mired in the carnage between the brutality of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and various affiliates of al-Qaeda, a breeding ground of extremism infinitely more dangerous than Afghanistan in the 1990s; Egypt in chaos, with the West, however unfairly, looking as if it is giving succor to those who would turn it into a Sunni version of Iran; and Iran itself, despite its new president, still a theocratic dictatorship, but one with a nuclear bomb. The West would appear confused, its allies would be dismayed, and its enemies would be emboldened. This is a nightmare scenario, but it is not far-fetched.
Start with Egypt: To many in the West, it is clear that the Egyptian military has removed a democratically elected government and is now repressing a legitimate political party, killing its supporters and imprisoning its leaders. So we are on a steady track toward ostracizing the new government. In doing so, we think that we are upholding our values. I completely understand this view, but to embrace it would be a grave strategic error.
The fallacy of this approach lies in the Muslim Brotherhood’s nature. We think of it as a normal political party. It is not. If you want to join the UK Conservative Party or the German Christian Democrats or the US Democratic Party, you can do so easily, and they will welcome you with open arms. In all of these countries, all parties respect basic democratic freedoms.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not such a party. Becoming a member is a seven-year process of induction and indoctrination. The Brotherhood is a movement run by a hierarchy that is more akin to the Bolsheviks.
Read their speeches — not those put out for Western ears, but for their own. What they were doing in Egypt was not “governing badly.” If you elect a bad government, then tough — you live with it. The Muslim Brotherhood, by contrast, was systematically changing the constitution and taking control of the commanding heights of the state in order to make it impossible for its rule to be challenged. And it was doing so in pursuit of values that contradict everything for which democracy stands.
So you can rightly criticize the actions or overreactions of Egypt’s new military government; but it is difficult to criticize the intervention that brought it into being. All of the choices that Egypt faces are ugly. There are large numbers of soldiers and police among the casualties, as well as civilians; and, partly as a byproduct of the fall of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, Egypt is awash with weapons. However, simply condemning the military will not bring a return to democracy.