Good enough for government work.

What follows is the sort of quibbling over details that appeals only to scholars. However, historians believe that human affairs are “contingent.” That is, even if humans are storm-tossed in some vast sea of historical processes, the actions that individuals take or do not take always have consequences.

Commenting on the troubles in Yemen and Libya, Professor Daniel Benjamin (US State Department counter-terrorism co-ordinator, 2009-2012, and now a professor at Dartmouth) said that “The forces that drove the Arab Spring [of 2011] were of such enormous dimensions that it’s unrealistic to think any president or any group of leaders could steer these events.”[1] It is possible to take a different view.

For one thing, the “forces that drove the Arab Spring” have been totally mastered. Protests in Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Djibouti, and Somalia all soon ended after largely cosmetic concessions by the authorities.   Something harsher was required in in Egypt and Syria. Under pressure from the crowds in a few urban areas and from the United States, the Egyptian military dictatorship bent but did not break. Now it has reasserted its power, using the threat of Islamism as its justification. Seeing what was happening in Egypt, the far more ruthless Assad government in Syria took a strong line with the urban malcontents.   They malcontents are mostly in refugee camps at the moment. What the Syrians were left with was an uprising among conservative Sunni Muslims who have been joined by a flood of Islamist foreign fighters, just as the insurgency in Iraq attracted hordes of Islamist jihadis. What does Islamism have to do with the American liberal vision of the “Arab Spring”?[2]

For another thing, the United States played an active role in creating the chaos that now engulfs both Libya and Yemen.   The Obama Administration exceeded its mandate from the UN when it expanded its involvement in the Libyan rebellion from protecting civilian lives to toppling the Gaddafi regime through air-power.[3] Then the U.S. walked away when the overthrow of Gaddafi opened a Pandora’s box of troubles. Much more reasonably, the U.S. also supported the initiative by the Saudi-dominated Gulf Co-operation Council to push “president” Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office. Here alone the Americans had a clear goal: to preserve the ability to hunt Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula jihadis.

As the NYT headlined the story in which Daniel Benjamin was quoted, “Killing Terrorists May Be Best U.S. Can Hope For.” That’s a modest goal. Not transformative of the entire Middle East. Not a lasting solution to the problem of radical Islam. Not the sort of thing to win someone a Nobel Peace Prize. But manageable within the limits of our power.

[1] Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, “Killing Terrorists May Be Best U.S. Can Hope For,” NYT, 17 June 2015.

[2] See: “Arab Youth,” September 2014.

[3] It also helped poison Russian-American relations. See: “Obama versus Putin,” September 2014.

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