Egypt: A No Win situation

Following in the wake of recent developments in Tunisia there are now massive protests in Egypt.  At first the numbers were small and easily dismissed by the government, but since the Muslim Brotherhood has gotten involved their ranks have swelled.  While there is no reason, so far, to suggest that Mubarak’s regime is in imminent danger, it is likely the Muslim Brotherhood would fill any vacuum its demise would create.  Unfortunately, even though Mubarak’s reign, with its corruption and oppression, is hardly an ideal one, there is no guarantee that a new government under the Muslim Brotherhood would be any better.

Historically, and especially in the Middle East, when an authoritarian regime is toppled it is rare that a new government becomes democratic, let alone enlightened.  Egypt itself serves as an example; when Nasser and his officers overthrew the British puppet regime in the ‘50s all promises of economic development and freedom were eventually put aside to be replaced by a de-facto police state.  Ba’athist revolutions in Syria, and Iraq, Colonel Gaddafi rise to power in Libya, and the Iranian Revolution all had the same effect; the new rulers ended up being just as bad, and often worse, than their predecessors.  Given this poor track record, it is hard to think the Muslim Brotherhood would be the exception.

Many would point out that most of the revolutions in the Middle East were by Arab Nationalists, and Socialists, rather than Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood; the argument being that the former regimes become inherently corrupt while the Islamists usually have the support of the people.  This argument is false.  While the best-known Islamic Revolution, the Iranian Revolution, was popular at first, most Iranians currently long for more political freedom and economic opportunity.

It should be noted that other experiments in Islamic governments in the region are not known for their successes:  Saudi Arabia is more oppressive to its people than Syria, or Iran, and Hezbollah’s inclusion in the Lebanese government has not led to more peace or stability for the country.  I am not arguing that there is anything inherently wrong with Islam, only that mixing fundamentalist religious doctrine and state power is a poor combination; Christian regimes in the west have a similarly bad record.

One reason to fear a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt is the history of the organization itself.  One of its earlier members, Sayyid Qutb, laid down the doctrine for modern day Jihad and heavily influenced Osama bin Laden and other Islamic terrorists, many of whom were members of the Muslim Brotherhood itself.  Like Al-Qaeda, the Brotherhood has the stated goal of re-establishing the Caliphate, and has a typical hateful view towards Jews, Christians, and the West.  It is hard to see how such a government could maintain a positive relationship with Israel and the Western World.

Some would argue that if the United States tried engaging such a regime, rather than ostracizing it, that they would be able to find common ground.  Unfortunately history has shown otherwise.  Despite popular perception, the United States has tried engaging such regimes, and the common result is failure.  After the Shah was overthrown by the Ayatollah in Iran, the U.S. initially made an effort to live with the new regime.  However, the theocrats in Tehran, realizing much of their legitimacy rested with fuelling hatred against the Jews and the West, stormed the U.S. embassy and cut off relations with Israel, which had been a former ally.  Other notable examples in the region include the regrettable support the Americans gave to Saddam Hussein, and futile efforts to engage Syria.  Even in the case of Cuba, the Americans initially tried to win over Castro.  It was only after Castro nationalized U.S. interests in Cuba unilaterally that the Americans imposed the embargo.

There are those who would point to the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has renounced violence and has committed itself to coming to power through political means.  Even if it were true, and it is not universally accepted, that the Brotherhood renounced violence, that does not mean they would remain peaceful if they came to power.  It is normal for such movements to discard violence when they are weak, but the vast majority of them have no qualms about using violence once they come to power.  Usually it starts out small, attacking former elites, but then escalates against new rivals, and then finally against anyone who seems to be a threat.  The P.L.O, Hamas, the Ayatollah, all of whom have one time or another claimed to renounce violence, have never shied away from violence when it has suited them.

What would happen to the Middle East in the event the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt?  Maybe it would succeed where every other movements has failed and bring democracy and economic prosperity to the Egyptians, and maintain positive relations with Israel and the West.  There are precedents where this has happened, at least initially.  The U.S. supported Nasser at first, and the Israelis believed they could work with him, until pressure from the Arab world and the Palestinians forced him to sever relations and fight them.

This would be the likely result of the Muslim Brotherhood’s accession to power.  Even if they seriously wanted to maintain good relations with Israel and the West, pressure from the Arab masses, as well as the likely continuation of economic stagnation would force the Brotherhood to turn against the “Jews and the Capitalists.”  The only question is to what degree?  Would they adopt the usual position of most countries in the region that merely pay lip service to fighting for the Palestinians and the honour of the Muslim world, or would they actively seem to undermine Israel and the U.S, like Syria, and Iran.
Most of the passive countries tacitly back Washington because they are either too weak, or dependent upon American aid.  Egypt is by far the most powerful Arab country.  It should be remembered that Egypt held Iran’s current position of causing the most trouble for the Americans and Israelis in the region for nearly thirty years until Anwar Sadat realized the horrific price it cost his nation and made peace.  His reward for saving his country from further conflict was universal scorn, and ultimately assassination by militants.  His fate has not been lost on the other despots in the region.

However, while Egypt is strong, she is also to some extent dependent upon considerable American aid.  While Washington would probably be tempted to end the aid if the Brotherhood came to power this would probably be a mistake.  This considerable aid averages between 1 and 2 billion U.S. dollars a year, and, not surprisingly, is only surpassed by the amount given to Israel.  This money would probably be the only significant bargaining chip the Americans would have with the new regime.

Unfortunately this alone does not guarantee that the Muslim Brotherhood would remain our friends.  Like Cuba after the embargo, and Iran (who had been another significant recipient of U.S. aid) after the Shah, Egypt could find other donors with deep pockets, including oil rich Iran, or possibly even the Russians or Chinese.  Either way it is possible the Egyptian populace, or at least Arab public opinion, would demand an end to U.S. aid to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from looking like another American puppet in the region.

All this points to the likelihood that a new government in Egypt would turn its back on its alliance with America, and its relatively peaceful relationship with Israel.  But once again we have to ask to what degree would the Brotherhood oppose them?  While it is reasonable to suggest that they would be relatively restrained at first, focusing on cementing their rule, once this has been achieved there is no way to tell.  It is possible they would remain content with passive lip service to the Palestinian cause and other sore points.

But is that realistic?  Is it realistic for a powerful, and proud, country like Egypt that has just thrown off the shackles of a U.S. backed dictator to retreat into isolationism?  Is it realistic for a movement that proposes re-establishing the Caliphate, ending Western influence in the region, and fighting the Jews to remain passive while the Palestinians have no homeland and there are wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?  Is it realistic for a country that has historically dominated the region to let others shape its destiny?  To all these questions there is a very probable “no.”

Most likely after a period of stabilization, the new government in Egypt would back Syria, and Iran’s goals of ridding western influence, destroying Israel, and dominating the region.  Initially Egypt would focus on supporting Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations fighting Israel, and the U.S.  A conventional war with Israel would be unlikely (given the poor record of Egypt’s Army against the I.D.F.), though not an impossibility; many conflicts in the region have begun when one or more sides have miscalculated.  If Egypt closed the Suez Canal or the straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, it could provoke Israel into war, is it did in 1967.

The consequences of Egypt joining the rogue countries of the Middle East would re-draw the balance of power in the region.  Israel would once again be confronted by the nightmare of potentially fighting a two front war, many of the moderate regimes would find themselves isolated, and the U.S. would have to consider diverting significant forces, perhaps a carrier group, to the Eastern Mediterranean to deter Egypt.  Needless to say terrorists and other rogue nations would get a tremendous boost to their morale and probably increase their destructive efforts.

Ironically any move towards a satisfactory arrangement between the Palestinians and the Israelis would similarly be quashed.  Israel would return her focus on security, and the Arabs would demand no compromises now that the balance had shifted in their favour.

This is what is at stake.  Either Mubarak’s regime survives, along with the balance of power, or the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power and increases the likelihood of conflict and violence in the region. In an ideal situation Mubarak would slowly pave the way to legitimate democracy, or at least relative prosperity, but this is very unlikely.  Maybe his successor would prove to be more open to real reform but only time will tell.  Unfortunately the alternative is potentially much worse.  There is simply no compelling evidence, historical or modern, to suggest the Muslim Brotherhood would be democratic, peaceful, or enlightened rulers.  For the Egyptians, it is a no win situation.

Vietnam: The Misunderstood War

Vietnam is perhaps the most misunderstood war of the 20th century.  The popular perception of the conflict is that America waged an aggressive and futile war to prevent the spread of Communism in South Vietnam, even though South Vietnam’s people welcomed it anyway.  The Americans are seen as war criminals that bombed the country to rubble and committed countless atrocities, while the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army were fighting to liberate their brethren in the South.  The impression is left of an arrogant superpower that tried to triumph over the will of a local people and was defeated by overconfidence and shortsightedness.

The reality of the war is much different.  The Americans fought a defensive war to help South Vietnam resist annexation by the Communist North.  Their plans were not to roll back Communism in North Vietnam or change its regime, but rather were to aid an ally against an invasion and subversion.  As for the people of South Vietnam, the vast majority had no wish to live under Communism.

North and South Vietnam during this period were very different.  The North was rural and agrarian, while the South was more urban and capitalistic.  This is one of the reasons that during the Viet Minh war against the French there was little sympathy for the Communists in the South.  Most of the Vietminh and major fighting during the French-Indochina war was in the North, while the South was mostly dormant.  This is why Vietnam was split into two countries after the conflict ended; resulting in a pro-U.S. state in the South, and a Communist state in the North.

A few statistics illuminate how much the South Vietnamese desired Communism.  After the French-Indochina war, as many as 1,000,000 Vietnamese fled the North while perhaps a tenth of that number fled in the other direction.  Also during the latter part of the Vietnam War, as many as 200,000 Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army personnel deserted to the supposedly corrupt, and wicked, government in Saigon.  Even more staggering is the estimated 2,000,000 who fled South Vietnam after the end of the war.  It is telling that when the NVA conquered South Vietnam, its top generals estimated that at best one third of the people supported them.

The idea that it was a mistake to support the South Vietnamese government and prevent the spread of Communism is likewise false.  While there is no denying that the regime in Saigon was militaristic and undemocratic, the same was true about South Korea during the Korean War, and Taiwan during the Cold War.  However, unlike South Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan were allowed to stabilize, build up market economies, and eventually develop healthy democracies.  Who can say without reservation that a stabilized South Vietnam free of Communism would have been worse than under the thumb of Bolshevism?

The Vietnam War was simply another part of the struggle against Communism during the Cold War.  With hindsight, the Soviet Union and her allies may seem ridiculous, but at the time they were anything but.  In order to understand the American decision to make a stand in Vietnam, it is necessary to look at the context of the time.  During the early ‘50s, when the decision was made, the Cold War was not looking good for the West.  The Soviets had gotten the bomb, China and Czechoslovakia had fallen to Communism, and there were Communist-inspired insurgencies being waged across the globe.  Add to this the decline of the Western European powers, and the general hostility of the emerging third world towards the West, and it is easy to see how Washington felt it needed to fight back against the Reds.

The Americans had to fight in Vietnam to show they would support their allies against Communism.  Despite what the pundits say, the domino theory was not mere rhetoric.  With the exception of Cuba and Chile, all the countries that fell to Communism bordered on other Communist countries and received help from them to facilitate it.  Russia had helped Mao take over China, and then Mao had helped Ho Chi Minh take North Vietnam, just as North Vietnam eventually conquered the South.  It should also be remembered that after the Vietnam War ended, Laos and Cambodia, both of which border Vietnam, fell to Communism as well.

Additionally, during the 30 years of the Vietnam conflict, there were communist insurgencies in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines.  These were defeated by a combination of good counter-insurgency techniques, and with the exception of Thailand, the absence of bordering Communist countries to give the insurgents support.

It is also a myth that the American conduct during the Vietnam War was exceeding brutal and immoral.  Most of the charges are in regard to the bombing of Vietnam, the Phoenix program, and atrocities like the My Lai massacre.

The bombing campaign against Vietnam was actually much more discriminating than the strategic bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan during the Second World War, and against North Korea during the Korean War.  While undoubtedly many innocent Vietnamese lost their lives from American bombs, during the Vietnam War there was nothing remotely similar to the systematic destruction and firebombing of German and Japanese cities, or the use of Napalm against North Korean cities that killed hundreds of thousands.  The bombing was so discriminate that Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara often micromanaged it to prevent civilian casualties.

That the bombing of Vietnam provoked more outrage than that of World War 2, or Korea, is likely the result of the massive media coverage that was not around during previous conflicts.

The brutality of the Phoenix program is also an exaggeration.  This was a campaign run by the C.I.A. and South Vietnamese to identify and neutralize civilian cadres supporting the Viet Cong and NVA.  In popular perception it is seen as an assassination campaign that killed thousands of innocent Vietnamese.  In reality it was necessary to provide at least three pieces of proof to identify a communist supporter, and the vast majority of those identified were imprisoned, not killed.  While there is no question abuses were committed, there is nothing to suggest that there were systematic flaws in the process.  This is not to suggest that the Phoenix program is not above moral scrutiny, only that it was far less destructive than is usually assumed.

The perception that American forces committed widespread atrocities is a myth.  With the exception of the shameful My Lai massacre, there does not seem to be a pattern of significant war crimes committed by American forces.  Given the integration of so many anti-war journalists in the conflict, and given that no evidence has surfaced (including among the Pentagon Papers) of similar atrocities since the end of the war, it is unlikely that the My Lai massacre was a typical event.  Without sufficient evidence, it is simply not reasonable to suggest the Americans committed widespread atrocities.

However, what has been well documented and established are the brutal atrocities committed by the Communists in Vietnam.  During the conflict they assassinated 35,000 and kidnapped 60,000 South Vietnamese.  These were mostly civilians, including mayors, judges, teachers, social workers, and doctors.  These assassinations and kidnappings were typical insurgent tactics to scare the populace into supporting them as well as to undermine the control of the government in Saigon.  Another typical atrocity was when the Communists murdered 3000 – 5000 South Vietnamese civilians in Hue during the Tet offensive.  Even more appalling were the massacres committed by the Khmer Rouge in neighbouring Cambodia after the war that killed perhaps 2,000,000 of their own people.

Another misconception of the war is that the Americans failed miserably at counter-insurgency.  It is true that under General Westmoreland the American army focused too much on relatively ineffective search and destroy missions.  However, after the Tet Offensive the Americans improved their methods to defeat the guerrillas.  While ambitious projects like the strategic hamlets, and methods used to neutralize the Ho Chi Minh trail, produced ambiguous assaults, other methods, such as arming the local populace, hearts and minds missions, the Phoenix program, and the re-distribution of land, ultimately neutralized, if not outright destroyed, the Communist insurgency.

In fact, South Vietnam fell, not to insurgents, but to a massive invasion by the North Vietnamese Army after the Americans withdrew and left South Vietnam to its fate.  The South Vietnamese, contrary to popular perception, did fight back stubbornly but were ultimately defeated by a better-equipped army.  It should be noted that whereas the Americans gave the South Vietnamese next to nothing in weapons and supplies after they left, the Soviets gave the North billions of dollars worth.

Therefore, I humbly suggest that Vietnam was a just war.  The Americans were fighting a defensive war to protect a country and people who had no wish to be conquered by Communism.  The Americans had to fight in Vietnam to reassure their allies and contain Communist expansion.  American conduct was generally more moral than that of the North Vietnamese, and their counter-insurgency campaign was successful.  Unfortunately, the Americans failed to support South Vietnam after they left and the country was conquered by the North Vietnamese Army backed by considerable Soviet aid.

However, the final myth of the Vietnam War is that the Communists won it.  While they finally conquered South Vietnam after thirty years, the conflict did much to strain relations inside the Communist world.  This eventually led to armed conflict among the participants.  During the Vietnam War itself, the Soviets and Chinese fought skirmishes along their shared border.  Even more disastrous were the Vietnamese conquest of Khmer Rouge Cambodia, and the Chinese Invasion of Vietnam in the late ‘70s.  For the Communist world, Vietnam was a pyrrhic victory.