June 23, 2018
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Middle East Conundrum

Hussein Malla | AP
Hussein Malla | AP
Anti-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi rebels mourn a colleague who was killed during fighting against pro-Gadhafi forces.


As the United States and other countries debate how best to deal with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, it is not reassuring that experts and pundits disagree on the best course forward, or even what lesson to learn from the past.

This was illustrated by two columns, published on subsequent pages, in the current issue of Newsweek.

Niall Ferguson, a history and business professor at Harvard, writes that the prime lesson (which has not been learned) is that the U.S. should have long been supporting movements and individuals that aspired to replace the Middle Eastern regimes. “Only the hopelessly naive imagine that 30-something Google executives will emerge as the new leaders of the Arab world,” Mr. Ferguson writes in the March 7 issue of the magazine.

He praises the Bush administration for using force to establish elected governments in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

On the next page, Peter Beinart, Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York and a former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that waiting is the best approach. He writes that Saddam Hussein’s regime would have collapsed on its own because there were no weapons of mass destruction. Likewise, despite arguments that the U.S. needed to militarily crush the Soviet Union, waiting out the communist regime — in essence the Cold War — was a better strategy.

“The rise of democratically elected Arab regimes that are less beholden to the United States represents Osama bin Laden’s and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s worst nightmare,” he writes.

The problem is that both options come with big risks. Intervening militarily will likely cost thousands of lives, of both soldiers and civilians. It will also empower nationalistic leaders critical of the heavy hand of interventionist governments (often the United States).

Waiting means that millions of Arabs will be denied basic freedoms and some will die.

Add to the conundrum Mr. Ferguson’s warning: “The far more likely outcome — as in past revolutions — is that power will pass to the best organized, most radical and most ruthless elements in the revolution, which in this case means Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Charting the middle ground — supporting those seeking a freer society while punishing ruthless leaders who deny freedom — is appealing, but often elusive. The U.S. shouldn’t give up this course, but the likelihood of failure must be acknowledged.

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