Tonawanda News

August 21, 2013

DUVALL: Where only the strongmen survive

By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — As has happened many times before, America’s best fictional president offered some prescient advice, now more than a decade ago, that speaks to problems we face.

Josiah Bartlet, the fictional president of television’s “The West Wing” was opining strife in the Middle East when he dismissed an adviser’s overwrought explanation of whatever the situation was.

The reason for all the violence in that part of the world isn’t religious or political in nature. It, Bartlet noted dryly, is because there’s no water and it’s extremely hot.

That thought passed through my mind several times reading about the strife in Egypt and what, if anything, America or the rest of the world can do to stop it.

President Obama has dithered and ducked the problem. He backed Hosni Mubarak until the forces on the street made it impossible. He backed Mohammad Morsi, the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood conservative, until the forces in the street made it impossible. He is backing the mostly American-trained Egyptian military, which ousted Morsi in a coup the United States can’t even call a coup — that is, until the blood in the streets will make it impossible to do even that.

This is not leadership. But what are the alternatives? After so badly overplaying our hand in the Arab world in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has nothing but cash to offer in exchange for compliance with whatever the hell outcome we could conceive that benefits us and Israel. 

And money, even billions of dollars of it, can’t buy democracy.

But American treasure spent propping up Egypt’s military isn’t so simply withheld, either. We give them the money as part of the historic Camp David Accord, the peace deal that’s prevented Egypt and Israel from taking up arms since 1979. A strong Egyptian army, paid for by the United States, was a prerequisite for any such deal for the Egyptians. 

And so President Obama faces a Hobson’s choice: Do we stop writing the last check that still fosters any kind of peace between Israel and a neighbor? Or do we want to keep paying off a military establishment whose brutal crackdown will create a generation of hacked off extremists?

Because America failed to intervene at a meaningful stage of Egypt’s democratic uprising it lost credibility with any party that would eventually rise to power. It should come as no surprise in hindsight, then, that American and other western nations were helpless when Morsi began morphing into Mubarak 2.0, crushing political dissent, slowly empowering the most radical elements of his Islamist base and ignoring the will of the people, most of whom never trusted him in the first place.

Now Morsi is gone, his supporters are rioting in the streets and there’s already talk of a low-grade Islamist insurgency beginning to coalesce around the legitimate complaints their democratically elected government — though hardly democratic in practice — was stolen.

It seems impossible to imagine the Muslim Brotherhood, which, like it or not, is a significant power base in the Egyptian political solution, ever participating in another election. Whether they boycott or the military outlaws their very existence as Mubarak did is irrelevant. No elected leader can claim a credible hold on power if half the country refuses to contest an election.

For decades, Middle Eastern strongmen like Mubarak curried favor from the West by promising they were the only thing standing between order and chaos. At this stage the strongmen are the only ones who were right — a damning truth in the world’s response to the Arab Spring.

Is the world a better place without the Arab strongmen in power? Almost certainly it is better. It is not easier.

If there’s one thing worth pointing out, it’s this: Obama’s middling approach has prevented another Iraq.

The cynic in me notes this time around it’s their soldiers — not ours — carrying out the bloodbath on a great Arab city’s streets. At least this most recent endless and pointless circular firing squad doesn’t have our guys in the middle. If the goal was to watch passively rather than hasten the preventable demise of an ancient society vital to our global interests, well, Mission Accomplished.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.