a Question of Sovereignty

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The unfolding situation in and around Syria wonderfully illustrates the elements and limitations of national sovereignty.

Some view sovereignty as a legalistic concept – a country is “sovereign” if it has agreed upon borders and agreed upon status as a stand-alone state. Others in a moralistic light – a nation’s sovereignty is to be opaque to foreign manipulation. Still others from a political perspective – outsiders shouldn’t meddle in the internal matters of a sovereign nation. It turns out that “sovereignty” is a product of geopolitical Realism – a nation is sovereign as long the rest of the world says it is. Current Exhibit: Syria.

Several players are considering what degree of kinetic response to visit upon Syria in retaliation for Damascus using chemical weapons (Sarin) on its own people. Understand that “Damascus using,” “chemical weapons,” and “its own people” are all debatable variables. Assuming poisonous gas was used (some say), there is no proof which side used it (others say), and with all the foreign fighters in-country, it could have been militarily targeted (still others). The consensus, however, is that government forces used sarin neurotoxin against a rebel-held outskirt of Damascus. As area-effect weapons, gas attacks do not discriminate between combatants and non-combatants – indeed the thousand or so fatalities were top-heavy with women and children. It is the assumption that toxins were used by government troops against civilians that is driving the various Western states – the US, the UK, France right now – to discuss the use of some sort of military response.

And that brings us to a question of sovereignty.

Most sovereigns, as a rule, view the activity within another sovereign’s borders to be transparent to international diplomacy. There are examples of national behavior that have triggered international attention – Tiananmen Square, for example, generated widespread international ire, but Chinese sovereignty was never penetrated over the matter. Others have reached a tripwire: “ethnic cleansing” – Rwanda and Bosnia, for example – goading outside governments to act. Still others – the Arab Islamic government in Khartoum’s extermination of Christians in Darfur and the Muslim Brotherhood’s targeting of Coptic Christians in Egypt – have not generated outside military responses. Thus, it seems that a sovereign’s “permissible” behavior is a moving target, not bound by official language (even if some exists), rather by the ability and political will of other sovereigns.

One’s sovereignty, it turns out, is what everybody else says it is. And that’s a working definition of Realism – sovereign states maneuver to achieve desirable power-balances, and the amount of activity vis-à-vis Syria demonstrates that Syria isn’t the problem, Iran is. This is why the Saudis, UAE and Qatar are all privately counseling the West to act, even though they must publicly denounce Westerners striking Muslims. All three have been supporting and arming Syrian rebels for much of the two-year war, even after al Qaeda coopted the effort. Al Qaeda is, after all, Sunni.

Egyptian Sit Rep

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I think everyone can agree that Egypt is a mess. I’ll give a pass to al Qaeda (who crave chaos within which to fester), but generally, everyone views the situation as problematic – geopolitically[1], humanistically[2] and economically[3].

So what do we do?

Any response should be serially filtered through two criteria: (a) strategic, i.e., which outcome offers the better future for US interests and those of the free world, and traditionally, (b) moral, i.e., which outcome offers the better future for Egypt. But first, we should define the playing field – what end-states are we contemplating: “democracy”; totalitarianism; authoritarianism; stability? And the players – the Muslim Brotherhood; the military; everybody else.

There is much face-time being taken up by congressmen who are shocked! … shocked! … by the brutality of the military’s crackdown on perpetual mobs in the center of town, and are calling for an end to our $1.3 billion in foreign aid. How does that further American interests in Egypt/the region? And how does that improve the outlook for Egypt?

The outcome we, and the lesser part of the street, want is for a secular, democratic Egypt to emerge from the chaos. Not going to happen. Our real choice is between the Muslim Brotherhood (totalitarianism) and the military (authoritarianism). They loathe one another, so the odds against some sort of coalition has a lot of 9s in it.

What are our interests vis-à-vis Egypt? (1) a secure Suez Canal, (2) friendly ties with the US, (3) continued alliance with the pro-American Gulf Arabs and Jordanians, (4) retention of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, (5) cooperation with the US on terrorism, which in part involves (6) isolating Brotherhood-run Gaza. Is the Brotherhood more or less likely than the military to keep the Suez open and operating? Is the Brotherhood more or less likely than the military to establish/maintain working relations with America? Is the Brotherhood more or less likely than the military to be a reliable partner with pro-American Arabs and Hashemite Jordan? Is the Brotherhood more or less likely than the military to honor the Camp David Accords? Is the Brotherhood more or less likely than the military to be complicit in jihadist activity in North Africa, Sudan and Mali? And especially in Gaza, where the Brotherhood-sired Hamas is locked in a blood feud with Israel? These are the constituent parts of regional stability – the World’s largest Arab state can influence the behavior of lesser Arab states and actors. It’s what it’s been doing for half a century. “If I can’t get sectarian democracy, I’ll take regional stability,” should be our strategic mindset with Egypt. Since Mubarak did all of those things for thirty years, and the military is the power behind the throne, I would say that backing the military against the Brotherhood would best serve American interests in Egypt.

Regarding Egypt herself, we should favor an outcome that will: (1) manage a growing economy – with a vibrant economy, all things are possible; without one, nothing is even probable, (2) respect the rights of women and minorities, (3) encourage economic freedom, (4) lean toward self-determination, and (5) exercise religious tolerance. These are the best outcomes for the Egyptian people. Which player gets a higher score through these filters? I think, again, the military is a closer fit to these criteria than is the Brotherhood.

The street is of two minds – and I’m not speaking of pro-Morsi or anti-Morsi, rather democrats and Islamists. The democrats started the revolution that ousted Mubarak, but the Islamists have since taken the movement over through their superior brutishness. The pro-Morsi street is the voice of Islamism, which, when peeved, burns churches. The Brotherhood invented modern omni-national jihad 85 years ago, and have been practicing it ever since. We’ve seen their economic prowess in Gaza, which they’ve turned from a thriving shop-driven neighborhood of neighborhoods into a squalid armed ghetto[4].

In his brief tenure, President Morsi offered nothing but incompetent, intolerant, increasingly dictatorial rule. In one year, he managed to squander 85 years of Brotherhood prestige garnered in opposition – a place from which one can promise the Moon – by persecuting journalists and activists, granting himself the unchallenged power to rule by decree, enshrining a sectarian Islamist constitution and systematically trying to seize the instruments of state power[5]. He was dissociating the military from state policy in order to coopt it.

This is going to sound odd for a constitutionalist conservative, but I do not favor existentially introducing “democracy” into Egypt, and I do not favor Muslim Brotherhood [civilian] control of the military. I favor a stability underwritten by a pro-Western, if authoritarian, military over a one-man-one-vote-one-time “democracy”, à la Gaza, underwritten by xenophobic religious tyrants.


[1] The Egyptian-Israeli Camp David Accord is the only thing allowing an Israeli non-war status quo, and with the Muslim Brotherhood in political control of Egypt (Morsi administration), the future of the Accord is in serious doubt. The Suez Canal is a major oil route for Europe-bound tankers, and is vastly cheaper than shooting the Cape (the next cheapest alternative to get from Arabian oil fields to European ports). Egypt does not drive, but does influence – can measurably ameliorate or exacerbate – the establishment of radical Islamists in North Africa, Sudan and Mali.

[2] The ubiquitous brutalizing of the Egyptian people by their own military and police, and because of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ritualistic killing of Coptic Christians and the razing of their homes and churches (it walks and quacks a lot like ethnic cleansing). This is all on top of the normal human cost of armed conflict, and all the more pronounced in urban conflict (the nastiest venue for combat operations).

[3] The obvious threat to European oil delivery costs, but also due to Egypt’s foreign trade and tourism – both of which are essentially non-existent during the chaos. Also, the street violence has all but shut-down local shops and businesses – thereby impoverishing the walking citizens of Cairo (and whatever other cities are daily embroiled in street violence).

[4] The best chance Palestinians had to rally the civilized world to their side was to establish a viable economy and civil institutions in Gaza, showing that they were able to operate a state.

[5] See Charles Krauthammer, The choice in Egypt: A dictatorship is better for the country and the US, in Washington Post, August 23 2013.

NOTE: Title art by Bill Day.

Egyptian Summer

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Egypt, like all non-Western states, was bound to prove problematic in the post-Cold War world. Where we didn’t prop up autocrats, we went out of our way to make like miserable under Soviet stewardship. Either way, the view in the street of American diplomacy wasn’t worth much.

But we got ourselves into deep doo-doo across the Greater Middle East with our bungling of the Mubarak ouster in 2012. At first, we backed the president. When it became obvious that the military was backing the demonstrators, we knew that Mubarak’s time was limited, and sent veteran diplomat Frank Wisner, former US Ambassador to Egypt, to Cairo with a deal for Mubarak – agree not to run for office in September so as to facilitate an orderly peaceful transition to a new regime. Ambassador Wisner swiftly accomplished his mission. But in a press conference back home, President Obama publicly called on Mubarak, our longtime ally, to resign, and to resign “now.” The following day, his press secretary was asked what the president meant by “now.” He responded that “now” meant “yesterday.” But “yesterday” was completely inconsistent with the settlement Wisner had faithfully agreed upon with Mubarak. Wisner left Egypt in dismay. His own president had cut the ground out from under him, and we lost a settlement that would have been far more constructive for American interests than what was to transpire[1].

The ambassador was not alone in his bewilderment. A leading Saudi in Europe expressed his shock: “Mubarak was your longest and most loyal ally in the Middle East. He worked with you on every counterterrorism measure over the last 30 years; he kept the Suez Canal open; he supported the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the Camp David peace agreement arranged by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat; and he continued to support efforts to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian compromise, and to that end he even helped blockade Hamas in Gaza. Yet in the first week that Mubarak was in trouble, you backstab him.” What all the regional leaders in the Middle East now believe, he says, is that “the minute I get into trouble the same will happen to me[2].”

These events terrified Israel. Mubarak, while not an ally to Tel Aviv, had been, as leader of the largest Arab nation, Israel’s guarantor of non-war with her Arab neighbors, and had even blockaded Hamas fighters from transiting from Sinai to Gaza and back[3]. The sudden abandonment of Mubarak, and our tacit acquiescence to the Muslim Brotherhood’s claim of turning over a new leaf, left Israel in the lurch – would the Camp David Accords still be honored? Would Egypt still police her end of the Gaza tunnels? Would a Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo still act as a suppressant on Syrian-Hizbollah-Jordanian kinetic ambitions toward Israel? The epicenter of Greater Middle East stability – such as it is – rested in Mubarak’s Cairo, and we had, without consultation with Tel Aviv[4], just thrown that away.

American influence in the Middle East has been severely compromised by mixed messages being sent almost daily, starting with the “apology speech” given in Cairo by President Obama on June 4 2009 and extending through our current eagerness to negotiate with the Taliban even as they kill and maim American troops in Afghanistan[5]. The Middle Eastern mind was nicely illuminated in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, not to mention Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by TE Lawrence himself. Arabs are died-in-the-wool Realists – they see balances of power as the viscera of political survival. Osama bin Laden, citing al Qaeda’s quickness, shorter decision cycles and decisiveness, claimed to be on the “strong horse” compared to the US, and that is very Bedouin … very Arab. They, geopolitically, respect power and disdain all else.

On June 18, Anne W Patterson, US Ambassador to Egypt and a veteran diplomat, gave a speech in Cairo in which she stated, that “[w]hile the US supported Egypt’s democratic development, it still had to deal with those in power,” insulting those in power as being somewhat less than desirable to Ambassador Patterson; and then went on to say, “I don’t think the elected nature of this government is seriously in doubt, moreover, [I am] deeply skeptical that street action will produce better results than elections,” thereby insulting the demonstrators who only too well remember “street action” that brought down Mubarak and empowered Morsi. I honestly don’t know what Ms Patterson was trying to accomplish by sticking one thumb in the eye of the Muslim Brotherhood and another in the eye of the opposition, simultaneously. This is hieroglyphical thought beyond the Rosetta Stone’s ability to translate.

Our disjointed approach to foreign policy seems wishy-washy to the Arab mind (read: weak), and so we get the worst of both worlds – our Arab allies don’t trust us and our Arab enemies don’t respect us (read: fear us). We need to remember two things when negotiating with the Middle Eastern mind (Arab and Persian): there is no Qur’anic prohibition against lying to infidels (anyone who does not share the speaker’s brand of Islam); and in Henry Kissinger’s words, “the only moderate Islamist is one who’s out of ammunition.” Their internal politics and diplomatic excursions may seem labyrinthian and Byzantine, but it all rests on a rather simple calculus – winding up on the “strong horse” when the music stops. Strength and weakness resonate in the Middle Eastern mind, all else is noise.


[1] Mortimer B Zuckerman, Obama Is Costing the US Credibility in the Middle East, in US News & World Report, October 29 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] STRATFOR, July 18 2012.

[4] President Obama doesn’t much care for Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and thinks that he [Obama] is the better judge of policy for Middle Eastern stability than him [Netanyahu].

[5] The treatment of the murder of four government personnel in Benghazi as an inconvenience during an election cycle was not lost Middle Easterners, either.