Whoever Wins, America Loses

In both Egypt and Syria, it's damned if we do and damned if we don't.


In both Egypt and Syria, it’s damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

Op-eds in America’s two most important newspapers highlight the dilemma facing the Obama administration in both countries. In the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum considers “What the U.S. should stand for in Egypt.” After posing two straw man options–“Support the military” and “Support the Muslim Brotherhood”—she argues both have “a central flaw”

They divide the Egyptian scene into two warring camps — Morsi vs. the generals, secular vs. Islamic, military vs. Brotherhood — thus tempting everyone to take sides.

Which is ridiculous, since it’s none of our business who runs Egypt and we shouldn’t be “backing” anybody at all. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel came close to this view when he declared this week that “It’s up to the Egyptian people. And they are a large, great, sovereign nation. And it will be their responsibility to sort this out.”

But neither Hagel nor anyone else in the administration has taken the next logical step. True, it’s up to the Egyptian people. Also true, we shouldn’t back one group over another, in Egypt or anywhere else. Those sorts of political games have won the United States an appalling reputation in the Middle East and elsewhere because they invariably backfire. We support the “pro-Americans,” ignore their unpopularity and are shocked when they fall. Or we support the “modernizers,” who then turn out to be dictators, and we are shocked when they fall. The particularly virulent strain of anti-Americanism in Egypt comes, in part, from our mostly uncritical support for Egyptian dictators in the past.

So, what then?

The United States can and should stand for the rule of law, stable institutions and democracy. And by “democracy,” I mean not just an election organized by the international community but the principle that power should change hands peacefully, inclusively and according to a set of rules accepted by all social groups. In societies such as Egypt — or Syria — the advocacy of democracy isn’t ideology but common sense.

That’s been my position as well. But turning that notion into policy is harder said than done. Applebaum’s close:

Had the Obama administration thought about Egypt in these terms, it might have had a rational, intelligible policy over the past several years. When Hosni Mubarak was in power, we should have pressured him, loudly and clearly, to hold elections. When Morsi was president, we should have called on him, equally loudly and clearly, to share power with other groups, to make concessions to minorities, to make sure that a flawed constitution was interpreted as fairly as possible. Now that the military is in power, we should come out loudly and clearly against its coup and use whatever limited influence we have to persuade the generals to return Egypt to constitutional rule.

It sounds simple, but of course it isn’t. If Kerry can confuse a millions-strong demonstration with “democracy” and if President Obama can’t bring himself to use the word “coup,” then it will be difficult for this administration to be clear, firm and consistent about the events unfolding not only in Egypt but also in Syria, Libya and elsewhere around the world.

This isn’t second guessing. Many Egypt experts, including my Atlantic Council colleague Michele Dunne, have been urging exactly this since the protesters took to Tahrir Square.

Still, from the perspective of Egyptians, pretty much any significant statement or action will be seen as taking sides.  Backing Morsi after he won the election was seen as backing the Brotherhood against secularists. Backing Mubarak was seen as opposing the Brotherhood—and then turning on Mubarak was seen as backing others. It’s really no win.

And Egypt is easy compared to Syria.

In the New York Times, Edward Luttwak has perhaps the most diabolical analysis yet of the situation with “In Syria, America Loses If Either Side Wins.”

At this point, a prolonged stalemate is the only outcome that would not be damaging to American interests.

Indeed, it would be disastrous if President Bashar al-Assad’s regime were to emerge victorious after fully suppressing the rebellion and restoring its control over the entire country. Iranian money, weapons and operatives and Hezbollah troops have become key factors in the fighting, and Mr. Assad’s triumph would dramatically affirm the power and prestige of Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, its Lebanon-based proxy — posing a direct threat both to the Sunni Arab states and to Israel.

But a rebel victory would also be extremely dangerous for the United States and for many of its allies in Europe and the Middle East. That’s because extremist groups, some identified with Al Qaeda, have become the most effective fighting force in Syria. If those rebel groups manage to win, they would almost certainly try to form a government hostile to the United States. Moreover, Israel could not expect tranquillity on its northern border if the jihadis were to triumph in Syria.


There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.

By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.

That this is now the best option is unfortunate, indeed tragic, but favoring it is not a cruel imposition on the people of Syria, because a great majority of them are facing exactly the same predicament.


Maintaining a stalemate should be America’s objective. And the only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.

Even more strikingly, Luttwak assesses that this in fact is and has been our policy all along:

This strategy actually approximates the Obama administration’s policy so far. Those who condemn the president’s prudent restraint as cynical passivity must come clean with the only possible alternative: a full-scale American invasion to defeat both Mr. Assad and the extremists fighting against his regime.

That could lead to a Syria under American occupation. And very few Americans today are likely to support another costly military adventure in the Middle East.

A decisive move in any direction would endanger America; at this stage, stalemate is the only viable policy option left.

I don’t recall whether I’ve written this before but I’ve certainly thought it. There’s certainly some appeal to Assad loyalists, Hezbollah, and al Qaeda killing one another indefinitely. The problem, of course, is that tens of thousands of innocent Syrians have been killed in the crossfire. Oh, and the wave of refugees fleeing the violence threatens to destabilize the region.

But damned if I have a better alternative. Luttwak’s assessment of the outcomes—that victory by either Assad or the radical elements likely to take power if the rebels prevail—is bad news. Nor, for that matter, is it by any means a given that the violence will end for long with either outcome.

I’ve been very critical of a few points of President Obama’s policy with regard to these two crises. Declaring “Assad must go” and drawing a “red line” with respect to chemical weapons use were amateur hour moves that constrained our policy options without any benefit. Hemming and hawing over whether the coup ousting Morsi was a “coup” was embarrassing and doing essentially nothing when the military started massacring loyalists to the democratically elected government it ousted in said coup was outrageous.

Those missteps aside, however, the options have been all bad. At the end of the day, I’m not sure the situation on the ground in either country could have been substantially better regardless of US policy.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Middle East, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Ben Wolf says:

    We lose less by staying out than getting involved and in any case, losing in Syria or Egypt doesn’t come close to representing an existential threat.

  2. fred says:

    Time for US to act. We cannot stand by and see people being slaughtered by a despotic government, as did Hitler. No troops on the ground, but bomb all targets that are supporting the murder of innocent people in Syria, and even if our nation has to do it alone. We are too great a people to stand by and not act now.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    What I think that people are missing is that once you’ve made enough wrong choices, none of the possible courses of action remaining are very good. We’ve been making wrong choices in the Middle East for decades.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    For decades going back how far? To Sykes-Picot? To Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt? To the creation of Israel? To allowing a Holocaust in Europe that drove Jews to Palestine?

    Deeply ignorant populations, religion that ranges from rigid to fanatical, poverty, an almost total disconnect from the intellectual and economic revolutions that shaped the West and Far East, a long history of tyrants, an utter absence of institutions beyond militaries and Islam. . . I’m not seeing the place or time where we could have reliably brought about any different outcome. We’re snake handling and constantly surprised that we get bit.

    Yes, in theory as you said yesterday, we should have engaged 50 years ago in institution building, but while that’s reasonable, I doubt it would have changed anything. Institutions not associated with Islam and financed by Americans are not going to hold much sway. An American political party? Rotary Clubs? We’ve had an American university in Lebanon forever, how much did that help to stop Hezbollah?

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    Well, for us it goes back about 40 years. In Egypt, specifically, it goes back to our support for Sadat.

    As to your complaints about American disrepute in the Arab world, that’s something that developed over the last forty years. Prior to that we had a pretty good reputation in the Arab world which, sadly, we did not capitalize on.

  6. Tillman says:

    You couldn’t really build institutions in the Middle East while prosecuting a Cold War.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    The US can´t be really popular among Arabs because Arabs sees Israel as a Colonialist Venture(In fact, Israel proponents sees Israel as a Colonialist Venture).

    Our support for Israel has mostly been since the Six Day War. That was 46 years ago. Prior to that France was actually Israel’s most important supplier.

  8. Woody says:


    This is the key, in my mind.

    I’ll also add that expecting any Administration to “solve” West Asia is colonial thinking, pure and simple. We don’t want democracy there, as we do not wish for Islamist parties to gain power, as they certainly would (and, of course, the Islamist parties would immediately undermine democratic institutions upon taking power, as they did in Egypt). Any military intervention is frought with peril and suffering (bombing them to save them is silly).

    No, we do not control what happens there – we can only promote mediation, which, though seen as weak, is our best bet for a settlement.

  9. stonetools says:

    What Michael, Tillman and Woody said. I do think that Dave is doing some Monday morning quarterbacking here. More specifically, what should the Obama Administration have done differently , especially when meeting the challenge of the Arab Spring?
    In the Middle East, unfortunately, Murphy’s Law isn’t a rule of thumb: its a frickin’ law of nature. Just about any policy the Administration pursues is likely to backfire in the worst possible way. Yet we generally have to do something because of the region’s strategic value. It is a puzzlement!

  10. Matt Bernius says:

    @michael reynolds:

    We’re snake handling and constantly surprised that we get bit.

    What’s the definition of insanity again?

    I think this comment encapsulates @Dave Schuler’s broader point. At some point, the best policy is to put down the snake and back away for a bit and try and figure out a new approach, which may include: stop trying to pick the damn thing up.

    BTW, I actually think the better metaphor here may be trying to break up dog fights, since there’s a lot more than one snake at play at any given time. And the fact is that so much of this is really about proxy wars.

  11. Dave Schuler says:


    If I’d started saying what I’m saying only yesterday, it would be “Monday morning quarterbacking”. Since I said the same things in 2003 and in 1973, it’s foresight.

  12. michael reynolds says:

    we can only promote mediation,

    Yeah, I think that’s what we can and should focus on. To the extent we’re at all credible as an impartial arbiter we should maybe stick to inter-state rather than intra-state matters.

    I’m now convinced, having witnessed the weak-kneed nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, that we do not have the will and the ruthlessness required for nation-building. I always believed if we intended to “nation build” in Iraq it would of necessity be top-down, take-it-or-leave-it, Japan/Germany 1945 style of nation building.

    Other than that sort of application of overwhelming power, I don’t think we can do much about 82 million uneducated, impoverished Egyptians with no notion of western liberalism. The Arab urban intelligentsia tried with the Arab Spring, but they are not representative of their own people. A quarter of the country can’t even read. Those that can are reading the Koran, which does not advance a lot of arguments in favor of tolerance or democracy. You don’t get a society to jump ahead by centuries in just a few years without a whole lot more force than we are willing to apply.

  13. Boyd says:

    …America’s two most important newspapers…

    That phrase made me laugh out loud, James. Good one.

  14. Eric Florack says:

    One of the problems that I’ve noticed these last couple of weeks and particularly the last couple of days as regards Syria’s attack on its own citizens (supposedly, anyway) is a total lack of information about who was being attacked. This seems to me a crucial lack.

    We are dealing, it seems to me, with a number of players who were not as they seem. My feeling is that our sense of humanity is being manipulated here as it has so often been in the past.


    * Remember, the United States government was all for Morsi in Egypt, despite the early reports that he was seriously tied to the Muslim Brotherhood. what’s called is what it is we removed Hosni Mubarak from power and ultimately put into his place someone who was an enemy of both peace and western interests. Certainly, an enemy of Israel… Morsi.

    *Back in the days of Carter, and his outright abysmal foreign policy, were told repeatedly of abuses by the Shah of Iran, and yet, look what he got replaced with, once the Mullahs had their way. Can anyone now honestly say that the removal of the Shah resulted in the end, in a more peaceful world?

    In the light of those events, and many more which could be named in the region, and outside it, I can’t help but wonder if the chemical attacks currently being reported in Syria, weren’t on Islamic extremists. It would certainly be one reason we’ve not seen any evidence on the point..

    As I’ve said previously, the Middle East as a region filled with a ruthless people who are willing to commit all kinds of atrocities in the name of Islam. If and I say again, if, what we have here is ruthlessness responding to ruthlessness in order to preserve the larger peace in the region and in fact the world, I can’t help but wonder if taking out Assad is genuinely in the interests of that peace. If it’s true, my take is that Assad being in power is in the interests of peace.

    And yes, I’m quite aware of the cries about human rights, war crimes, etc.. I’m not blind to that aspect of it. I’m quite sure Assad is not what we would call a “White Hat”.

    But still…. even with that in mind, is it logical to operate in a vacuum as regards the larger picture here? Giving Islamic extremists a toehold under the guise of human rights etc., seems to me counterproductive to that end. We are dealing with a group of people who do not think as we do. Golda Meir knew this difference well, when she said…

    “We will have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us”

    We still see Arab children being sent to their deaths, and other unspeakable atrocities to support an extremist Islam. Are we really sure that’s not what we’re dealing with here? Are we sure that’s not what Assad is trying to fight off?

    The word “decide” has a root word meaning “to kill”. I suggest that when decisions are made, opportunities die. As regards Syria and seeking to overthrow it’s government for our perception of human rights, We should be careful what we kill.

  15. Pinky says:

    The morally-consistent position is to be in favor of stability, democracy, and human rights. That means supporting the government that was in place in Egypt under Mubarak, but better, and not necessarily with Mubarak in charge. That means supporting the government of Syria, but better, and not necessarily with Assad in charge. Ditto Libya and Gaddafi. In all those cases, the steps toward reform would have left the government in place but changed the approach of the government, and in fact set up the scenario for each of those leaders to be replaced.

    We should be supporting a democratized Turkey, a democratized Saudi Arabia, et cetera.