Thursday, August 15, 2013
I am close to finishing a truly great (and thoroughly depressing) book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Cambridge (England) historian Christopher Clark. It portrays how a group of decisionmakers from many different countries chose actions that eventuated in the true catastrophe of 1914-1918 (which led quite directly to the even greater catastrophe of 1939-45). No one "chose" World War I, of course; most of them believed that a show of force would lead to a relatively quick victory. They were wrong.
I discovered a few moments ago that I'm in the 30% of the people responding to a Washington Post poll (obviously scientifically unreliable) who think the Administration is correct in not cutting off military aid to the dreadful people now running Egypt. Listening to stories about what happened in Cairo yesterday is wrenching, and Obama was surely correct in cancelling the joint military exercises with Egypt. If he can cancel the meeting with Putin (which I also oppose) because of the relatively minor Snowden episode (there is, obviously, no extradition treaty with Russia, and there is a millennium-long tradition of offering political asylum to political refugees), then, obviously, the military exercises had to go. But cutting off the $1.5 billion of aid, however satisfying as a statement--but about what, the savagery of the repression yesterday, or the decision to displace the elected president who was himself proving to be a disaster on a variety of grounds?--could well threaten a variety of American and world interest. Think of Donald Rumsfeld and "known unknown" as well as the more dangerous "unknown unknowns." What might happen if we cut aid off? Perhaps the military would be tempted to renounce the peace treaty with Israel; indeed, that treaty is a major explanation of the aid in the first place. Perhaps more serious, as a threat to American interests, would be a decision to cut off trade through the Suez Canal. Or perhaps that would happen simply through the dissolution of the Egyptian State. Are we prepared to send in American troops on the ground--I'm afraid drones will prove completely irrelevant--to capture the Canal? Israel, France, and the UK tried that in 1956, and Ike, to his eternal credit, realized that was a truly terrible idea.
I also find myself supporting the Administration's waffling in Syria. Does anyone really believe that the US has a magic wand it can wave to make things come out all right in that country? I initially supported Obama back in 2008 because I had more faith in his judgment than in then-Senator Clinton's. I share many of the disappointments with Obama. I'm afraid he has reinforced my view that we ultimately should junk the presidential system in favor of a parliamentary one that would produce not only less gridlock but more capable and experienced national leaders. But I really don't know what beyond sheer hopefulness--similar to what was expressed in a number of embassies in July 1914--supports the call that he be more "decisive" and use American power to "intervene" in the really terrible situations in both Syria and Egypt. How much of a more general conflagration do we want to risk? (And, yes, I support his waffling on Iran.) Should we really "sleepwalk" into a general Middle East War as the self-proclaimed "indispensable nation"?