As we observe the latest round of disharmony in Egypt, where a restive population grew weary of the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and an ousted president Muhammad Morsi, we can’t avoid one conclusion: Anyone who tells you they understand the future trajectory of the Middle East or North Africa is deceiving themselves.
Consider the track record of the armchair prognosticators who have claimed to be able to read the tea leaves in Cairo. We remember the same experts telling us that former president Hosni Mubarak could endure the mass protests in 2011 or that Morsi’s Islamist government would be a force for peace and stability.
The educated guesses of the pundit class have proved to be no more valuable than anybody else’s.
We can’t help but notice that such ambiguity is a regionwide phenomenon. Despite an increase in American assistance to forces combating the rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, there are no signs to suggest that the U.S. is capable of distinguishing between rebels who are palatable enough to join in a marriage of convenience and those who will only use our assistance to sow the seeds of radicalism in the country.
In Afghanistan, we are pinning our hopes for a more peaceful country after the departure of American troops on a sudden impulse toward good will from the Taliban, a policy driven more by hope than experience. In Iran, new president Hassan Rowhani is either an accomodationist moderate or a crypto-radical, depending on whom you talk to.
What lesson do we take from the utter confusion that seems to permeate even the most sophisticated analysis of the region? That discretion is the better part of valor.
If the past decade — an epoch that will always be scarred by sweeping foreign policy misapprehensions, such as the idea that Americans would be greeted as liberators in Iraq — has taught us anything, it’s that what we don’t know can hurt us. America has spent far too long entertaining illusions of mastery in this complicated cauldron of social and political turmoil.
Needless to say, we wish the region well. Few developments could be more salutary for the wider world than a Middle East that increasingly embraces liberal democracy, economic freedom and the recognition of human rights. Whether the region is currently capable of such sweeping change — and, if it is, how it gets there — are open questions that are clearly beyond the ken of even our best foreign policy minds.
The task of reforming the Middle East belongs to the people of the Middle East, not to foreigners, however well-intentioned. The U.S. can serve their interests — and our own — most effectively by embracing humility and resisting the temptation to intervene in what are clearly domestic affairs.
The Orange County Register