Steve Walt asked a great question the other day: Are U.S. Interests Really at Stake in Egypt, Syria, etc…? In posing the question, he cited a recent comment from Brendan Green, a visiting professor at the LBJ School at the University of Texas-Austin:
“Pre-2011, if you said that Mubarak would fall, that Egypt would experience a mass political mobilization that destroyed its political order several times over, that the streets of Cairo would run red with blood; that 100,000 would die in Syria, that the Levant would be aflame; that the entire region would start to conduct much of its politics on sectarian grounds, and that there would be no end in sight, I think most people would have told you the proposed situation would be disastrous for American interests. Certainly it would be disastrous for American influence in the region. And yet, are we really worse off than we were in 2010? By what metric?”
Walt followed up with:
…I thought his basic comment was brilliant. If something as momentous, turbulent, and bloody as the “Arab Spring” can erupt and fester for several years, and yet have hardly any observable impact on the life expectancy or economic well-being of the overwhelming majority of Americans, what does that tell you about the true scope of “vital U.S. interests?”
I think this is a fascinating question. But I don’t think it should be left hanging as a rhetorical question.
A couple of things strike me. First, there is a temporal element to Green’s question “by what metric?” Green wants to see the effects now. Walt shares this. He doesn’t see any “observable impact on the life expectancy or economic well-being” of most Americans. But, is that the end of it? History has a curious way of creating unanticipated outcomes and transnational effects that don’t always present themselves today or tomorrow.
Second, we are witnessing a major upheaval and transformation of the social, cultural, political, and economic structures of an entire region. State institutions — their legitimacy and authority — are being contested by the combined effects of violence, political protest, economic decline, religious tension, and social frustration. In the short term there is probably little direct effect on Americans from the events in Egypt and Syria– with the possible exception of the disruption of the Suez Canal, key pipelines through the region, and access to the Persian Gulf. All of which seem to be contained for the time being. But, this is a major transformation happening in an increasingly globalized and polarized world. The weakening of the state, the breakdown of governance, the conflict within religious order, and the corresponding rising inequality and public anxiety and anger they all produce make it much harder to fully measure or fully anticipate the effects of such actions. Furthermore, we are witnessing the expanding effects of asymmetries of power and intense contestation over major legitimating ideologies.
The bottom line here is a high degree of uncertainty with these events. We don’t really know all of the causal elements at work here. We don’t have a good understanding of snowballing or spill-over effects. We are not very good at forecasting things and we are frequently caught by caught by surprise. This make things even more complex today because the U.S. is operating in a world with hundreds, actually thousands of other actors (international an domestic) who are all acting, reacting, interacting in ways that make it much more difficult for any/all of us to chart what’s going to happen next. So, are U.S. interests at stake in Egypt and Syria? I don’t really know, but I’m not sure we can simply dismiss the question because we haven’t seen any “observable effects on American life expectancy or economic well-being” yet. You tell me.