The Hard Hand of the Middle East

By Robert Kaplan

Reality can be harsh. In order for the United States to weaken and eventually defeat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, it could use help from both the Iranian regime and that of President Bashar al Assad in Syria. In the Middle East, it takes illiberal forces to defeat an even more illiberal force. The mullahs' Iran and al Assad's Syria sadly represent the material at hand, with which the United States must somehow work or tolerate, however surreptitiously, however much it will deny it at the same time. Ah, you might say, What about the moderate, liberal opposition in Syria? Answer: Such forces are more viable on paper than on the battlefield.

The truth is understood but cannot always be admitted, either by officials or by journalists -- the truth being that order is preferable to disorder, meaning dictatorship is preferable to chaos, even if dictatorship itself has often been the root cause of such chaos.

The Islamic State is the fruit of chaos. It arose in a vacuum of authority. That vacuum was created by both the weakening of an absolutist (albeit secular-trending) regime in Syria and the inability of a stable, power-sharing system to take hold in Iraq following America's dismantling of Saddam Hussein's own repressive rule. And the worse the chaos, the more extreme will be the reaction. Thus, from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq that together have killed many hundreds of thousands of people and have featured a plethora of armed groups, the Islamic State has emerged in all its horrifying barbarity.

This harsh moral and political reality extends beyond Syria and Iraq to the larger Levant and the Middle East. Egypt is now, once again, governed by an illiberal, Pharaonic regime, worse arguably than that of the deposed military dictator Hosni Mubarak. It has killed many demonstrators in the streets. It features a budding personality cult around its president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Yet it is a friend of Western and Israeli interests, whereas the democratically-elected government it illegally deposed, that of the Muslim Brotherhood, was demonstrably not a friend of the West or Israel. That's right, Western interests can sometimes -- often, actually -- be better served by autocracies than by democracies: that's if the autocracy in question happens to be more liberal and secular in its values than the democracy in question. It is the regime's philosophical values that are crucial -- more so than the manner of how it came to power.

As the situation now stands, if there is going to be a less violent relationship between Israel and Gaza it is more likely to occur through the auspices of the al-Sisi regime in Cairo than through the Obama administration in Washington. It might not even be an exaggeration to say that the Israeli government, for the moment at least, trusts al-Sisi more than it trusts U.S. President Barack Obama. Though Obama might like to think of himself as a realist, the fact is that a President Richard Nixon or a President George H. W. Bush -- and their secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and James Baker III -- would have openly acknowledged their friendship with the current Egyptian regime, while Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, cannot quite bring themselves to do it.

To repeat, America's friends in the region for decades have been -- and will continue to be -- autocrats. George Kennan, arguably America's greatest foreign service officer of the 20th century, pointed out that the internal nature of a regime was less important to the United States than its international posture. To wit, autocratic Egypt has been more helpful in the Gaza crisis than democratic Turkey.

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Robert D. Kaplan is Chief Geopolitical Analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm, and author of Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. Reprinted with the permission of Stratfor.

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