The ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has destroyed the self-delusions of the mainstream media and the liberal foreign policy establishment. Martin Kramer has been compiling some of the most ridiculous predictions (e.g. Tom Friedman of the New York Times: “The popular trend is not with the Muslim Brotherhood”). But President Barack Obama, having come late to the revolution, is now celebrating the Brotherhood’s rise.
The Obama administration’s stance is inexcusable and dangerous. The Brotherhood is implacably opposed to America’s allies, interests and values. But conservatives who are eager to blame Obama for “losing” Egypt are somewhat off the mark. Whether the Arab Spring was good or bad, it was inevitable, given the failure of Arab states over the past several decades. And for the same reason, the Arab Spring is of secondary importance.
The real story is the instability that has emerged among the region’s non-Arab powers: Iran, Israel, Turkey and the United States. That instability is partly driven by Iran’s efforts to become a nuclear power, but it is also being accelerated by the abdication of the U.S. as the region’s de facto leader. A strong U.S.-Israel-Turkey alliance is a deterrent to the Iranian regime; a weak U.S.-Israel-Turkey alliance is an invitation for Iranian aggression.
Iran is pursuing a two-pronged strategy. One is the nuclear track. Iran’s leaders believe they can surpass Israel as a nuclear power, even with fewer bombs and poorer delivery systems, because they can better absorb an attack. The other prong is the use of terror groups throughout the region–including Sunni groups, as Shia-controlled Iran attempts to supplant Al Qaeda as the regional standard-bearer for widespread radical sentiment.
The Arab Spring serves Iran’s interests, because it has weakened the Arab states while emboldening radical groups throughout the region. But it could also weaken Iran, since the Iranian regime is also vulnerable to popular pressures. Protests nearly toppled the regime in 2009–and might have done so if the Obama administration had not effectively propped up the Tehran regime in the futile hope of achieving a grand nuclear bargain.
It is worth noting that Iran is the only non-democracy among the region’s four big non-Arab powers, and the only authoritarian state in the region whose oppressed population is pro-American. The continuing error of the Obama administration in the Arab Spring has been its refusal to unite the other regional democracies in a push for regime change in Iran–a change that would bring about more stability, not less, in the Middle East.
Instead, the Obama administration, having first mocked George W. Bush’s democratic agenda, embraced the Arab Spring by toppling only those regimes that had been U.S. allies or were moving into a Western orbit. (The notable exception was Bahrain, a Saudi client state, where the Obama administration–perhaps proving the enduring strength of the Saudi lobby in Washington–supported the Saudi-backed crackdown on protests.)
The central thesis often associated with so-called “neoconservatism”–that democratic change is good for security in the long run, because constitutional democracies do not go to war against each other–remains intact. The danger is that the U.S. is failing to support such change in the country most in need of it. And the Muslim Brotherhood is a symptom of a larger problem: that Obama is not willing to lead, except from “behind.”
The result of the Obama administration’s weakness on Iran (and on Syria, a close Iranian ally) is that America’s non-Arab allies are being forced to contemplate unilateral military action–Israel against Iran, and Turkey against Syria. Making matters worse is the fact that relations between Turkey and Israel have deteriorated sharply on President Obama’s watch, even as he takes pride in his personal friendship with Turkey’s leader.
So the immediate danger is not that the Muslim Brotherhood will tear up Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, but that Hamas–the Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch–is expanding its assets in Egypt for use in a potential Iranian-Israeli war. It may be true that the Iraq War strengthened Iran inadvertently; it is clear President Obama’s response to the Arab Spring is strengthening Iran–deliberately, if indirectly. A new direction is needed–soon.