Among the millions, if not billions, of people around the world who in 2009 hoped that Barack Obama might introduce basic changes to American foreign policy were the Nobel Committee in Norway, which offered him a very premature Nobel Peace Prize. Of the four Presidents to have received it, including Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, and Carter, he now looms as by far the least deserving. He did withdraw American troops from Iraq and promises to do the same in Afghanistan, but only after six more years of futile war in that second country. He has made no major progress in our relations with any major industrial state, and he has gotten nowhere in his attempts to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In the Middle East he has essentially continued, at lower cost, the neoconservative policies of George W. Bush, according to which the only good dictator is a fallen dictator, regardless of what consequences might follow. He committed himself successively to the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qadaffi, and Hafez Assad, but it is far from clear that the fall of the first two is going to benefit either their nations or the United States. In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, David Bromwich has written a brilliant attack on Bill Keller of the New York Times, John McCain, and others calling for intervention in Syria, emphasizing not only the weakness of the case for it but the unlikelihood that it could have any beneficial consequences. Today, days after I began this post, we learn that the Administration will indeed supply small arms to the Syrian opposition--apparently to preserve its credibility with allies like Jordan and Saudi Arabia who are taking the Sunni side in the Syrian civil war.
I have been wondering what the President--or for that matter, Francois Hollande, Angela Merkel, or David Cameron--might say with respect to the Syrian situation at this moment. Here is a quick draft.
"Since 1979, and more intensely in the last few years, the nations of the Middle East and Central Asia have been wracked by revolution and political conflict. In the vast sweep of human history such periods have occurred in every region of the world. France, Germany, Britain and the United States have all experienced revolutions and long, costly civil wars, as well as massive foreign conflicts. All of them ultimately resolved those wars themselves, without foreign intervention, and this must be the task of nations like Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt as well. Nations and regions have different histories and cultures, and indeed, the primacy of western values is no longer taken for granted as it was only half a century ago. Yet the history both of the western nations and of the Middle East itself offers critical lessons in the present crisis. Humanity has advanced to its current stage only by abandoning religion as the basis of politics. Across North Africa and the Middle East, many nations must decide whether they intend to doom themselves to decades of religious strife, or whether instead they can establish forms of government that will enable all their citizens to live together in peace.
"For two millenniums, the three closely related monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have spread through the Middle East, Central and South Asia, North Africa, and across the seas. These religions still offer billions of people the comfort of faith and rules to live by. But whether or not they are divinely inspired--as most of their adherents believe--they have inevitably been interpreted from the moment of their foundation by living men and women--and those interpretations have differed. Christianity has endured two major schisms, first between the Roman and Byzantine orthodox churches and then, in the sixteenth century, between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Islam divided very early into Sunni and Shi'ite faiths. Judaism has taken many forms over the centuries. And despite the fervor with which individuals believe in each of the various branches of these faiths, history shows clearly none of the dreams of a single universal church shall ever be fulfilled on earth--a fact predicted, one might say, by the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel.
"Sadly, each of these schisms has led to large-scale violence. Coming myself from a western nation where Christianity has always been the most numerous religion, I shall look more closely at the impact of religious divides in western Europe. The birth of modern Protestantism in 16th-century Germany triggered civil wars, initially resolved in 1555 by granting to the rulers of individual German states the right to decree the state religion. In the second half of the sixteenth century a violent civil war between French Catholics and Protestants raged for decades, concluding only when the French King Henry IV converted from Protestantism to Catholicism and specified particular areas where Protestants could worship freely. The conflict in Germany began again in 1618 and continued for thirty bloody years, inflicting terrible human and economic damage before a new compromise was finally reached in 1648. The civil war in Britain in the 1640s also turned largely on religious differences. In 1685, the French monarchy banned Protestant worship, driving hundreds of thousands of Protestants out of the country. It would be very difficult, I think, to find Germans, Frenchmen or Britishers today who would argue that any of these terrible events reflect credit on their ancestors. All were tragedies of history.
"The eighteenth century saw the dawn of the age of reason, and a new attitude towards the place of religion in public life. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the new nation of the United States, whose Constitution rejected any established religion or religious test for public office, and where believers and non-believers alike enjoyed full rights. For the next century and a half that principle drew immigrants from all over the globe to immigrate to the United States. Europe, however, followed suit. During the nineteenth century Britain, Germany, France, and virtually every other western European nation eliminated legal distinctions among citizens based upon religion.
"Meanwhile, let it be noted, most of what we now call the Middle East, as well as North Africa and a good deal of Eastern Europe, had been ruled from the 15th century until the early 20th by the Ottoman Empire. And while that empire could not be considered a modern state, its laws at least allowed Muslims, Christians and Jews to live together, albeit on unequal terms. In that sense it, like the emerging European monarchies, asserted civil over religious authority.
"The newly independent states in North Africa and the Middle East that emerged about sixty years ago were also based upon civil, not religious authority. In the past forty years much of that region has experienced a new religious awakening--one that is also visible in Israel. Now some of the governments of those states have disappeared while religious conflicts have grown. In the past forty years three Middle Eastern states--Lebanon, Iraq, and now Syria--have been torn apart by catastrophic civil wars fought by the adherents of different religions. Most of the states of the Middle East include both Sunni and Shi'ite populations, and Sunni and Shi'ite states are now supporting the opposing factions in the Syrian civil war. That was what happened in Germany from 1618 to 1648. It is not impossible that within twenty years nuclear weapons could be deployed in this internecine conflict. In any case, this is a catastrophe which men and women of goodwill must try to stop. The new President of Iran--a man pledged to repair hsi country's relations with the rest of the world--could make an enormous contribution to this task.
"The western nations and the broader UN Security Council cannot impose a political system or a political settlement upon Syria, but they can recognize the principles upon which one can be based. The fate of individual rulers is far less important than the need to re-establish the principles of equality before the law and freedom of worship. Only then can societies commit themselves to the Enlightenment dream of progress based upon human reason--the only vision that offers hope for the survival of modern civilization in an increasingly complex world. We call upon the leaders of all Syrian factions to accept the idea of a tolerant Syria that respects human rights for all, to agree upon a political solution to their war guaranteeing freedom of worship, and to lay down their arms. If they can do so, they can provide a critical example to the other nations of their region. If they cannot, their own people and the people of the region will suffer a series of catastrophes that will set them back for decades or even centuries. Meanwhile, we ask every government in the region to commit itself to religious equality and religious peace within its borders to forestall even greater catastrophes. We believe the mass of their people would welcome such a step.
"The age of imperialism is over. While some nations remain much richer than others, they no longer dispose of the human resources, the will, or the moral certainty that led them, in centuries past, to impose their will and their values on others. This too is progress. The fate of the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa rests in their own hands. Yet they are a part of a broader history and they cannot, and must not, ignore its lessons. The United States will do nothing to encourage the triumph of any faction based on ethnicity and religion, but its government stands ready to do all it can to encourage a broad political settlement that will turn Syria away from the disastrous path of religious war."