What If There Is No Way Out?

The Middle East is a tragic place. It is a region governed by violence, and it always has been. I was a witness to the non-violent and broadly liberal Cedar Revolution during the Beirut Spring that ousted the occupying Syrian military dictatorship, but Lebanon has been effectively reconquered by proxy. Some Middle Easterners, bless them, have opted to take the gun out of politics, yet they remain pushed around and lorded over by their more ruthless neighbors who have no intention whatever of laying down arms.
For years I asked Arabs and Israelis alike, “what’s the solution?” Finally I had to stop. It is such an American question. I can’t think of a single person I know who lives in the region who thinks there is a solution to the problems that ail it.
The Middle East is impossibly difficult for American presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike. The choices are between terrible options and even more terrible options, and it’s not always obvious which is which. Should Barack Obama support an Egyptian dictatorship that shoots unarmed men and tortures dissidents who share American values? Or should he help shove aside an occasionally useful part-time ally knowing that dangerous Islamists might take his place?
The answer to that depends on what happens next, and we don’t know what will happen next.
I do know this, though. If Egyptians are bound and determined to be ruled by Islamists, they cannot be held back forever. They might not ever get it out of their system until they see what it’s actually like. They won’t be dissuaded by dialogue, and they won’t be dissuaded by prison. Islamism is like communism for some people. It looks good from a distance on paper, but up close and in person it’s ghastly.
The citizens of Iran have learned the hardest way imaginable that Islamism is hell. When they overthrow their regime–and they will–the country will be more secular than it has ever been and the threat there will have passed. Egypt, I’m sorry to say, may require two revolutions before it matures–the first against secular military rule and the second against the Muslim Brotherhood. I hope it’s not true, but if it is true there’s not much Americans can do to stop it.

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