Seth Greenberg

Sometimes Nothing is Correct-But You Have to Try


In the U.S. there is a lot of gnashing of teeth, political accusatory behavior, regrets, and prognostications. None of this is very helpful. The subject is Egypt, but also Syria, Iraq, etc. Whereas there is certainly reason for sober discussion and debate about what is transpiring in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, the notion that the U.S. has the power or ability to change the course of events is overrated. Consider the countries under discussion. Iraq, well the U.S. spent billions/year over about a 12 year period to help democratize Iraq, and get rid of an autocratic ruler who attacked his own people militarily (as noted by the Bush administration). How is that going? Over the last 2 months over three thousand citizens in Iraq have died in either State police actions or terrorist attacks. The government has shown no sign of accommodating minority groups, providing a sense of inclusion for those of whom are not in power. The U.S. involvement cost in Iraq, loss of thousands of American lives, billions of dollars, and there is not much to show for it, i.e., direct intervention was costly but had little impact. In fact, as the NY Times reports, parts of Iraq have become a fertile ground for growing terrorists bands of all stripes. Regarding Syria, the U.S. stood on the sideline, doing nothing. Well the war rages on and over a hundred thousand have died and a strongman attacked his own people militarily. Doing nothing except providing humanitarian aid and implementing sanctions changed nothing, and U.S. influence did not improve. Finally, there is an unraveling Egypt, where the U.S. tried threats and diplomacy.   Secretary Hagel reportedly made about 20 calls to the Egyptian military leadership prior and following the first blood bath trying to push a diplomatic remedy. The U.S. failed to prevent further carnage. The leadership of Egypt moved on with its military attack of its own people. Trying to flex diplomatic muscle did nothing, and U.S. influence only appeared weakened. Thus, collectively, we find in the Arab Middle East, the proverbial “feet on the ground,” “sanction only hands-off approach,” or the “direct pressure of a non-military nature” have little effect. In short, doing much, doing nothing, or doing a modest amount are equally ineffective in persuading the actors to change course.

It is time to be less arrogant about solutions. I am getting a bit troubled by those who think that in each case had we only done something different there would be no mess. Clearly, all tracks have been tried and all tracks have failed.

What irks me the most are the political types and commentators, who relentlessly criticize without offering novel direction. Ran Paul is an exception. He wants to completely withdraw all foreign aid to save small billions for the U.S. economy. However, has he calculated the impact of his position?  Does he not care whether the Sinai becomes a threat to Egyptian stability, a haven for Jihadist plotting, a threat to Israel, a threat to the Suez Canal operation? Maybe, he is correct?  But please have the decency to spell out the downside to such action and there will be a downside. Feel good responses may provide immediate satisfaction but also set the stage for long-term hazards. Realizing that nothing has worked ought not necessarily lead to a turning away from a volatile and dangerous region. What is required is a better computed bipartisan U.S. effort to determine the best course of action. There ought to be a willingness to stand up and say that the region poses real hazards, and that no solution is ideal. What is needed is a gathering of the best minds on Middle Eastern affairs to inform all parties of the options and likely consequences. With such knowledge the different perspectives should reflect on what is best for the U.S. and the region. With full acknowledgement that costs will be associated with any action, it is critical that the U.S. shape a unified approach (or approaches) where the responsibility for action is shared across the Government. A cohesive approach that most across both parties sign unto will increase U.S. standing. It is time to stop worrying about scoring points for partisan political advantage and start worrying about a region under siege. For better or worse, recommendations for this increasingly dangerous part of the world ought to reflect a collective wisdom and responsibility. It is time to formulate policy that reflects a collective endorsement so whatever the chosen path, it has the full backing of the U.S. government behind it.      

About the Author
Seth Greenberg has a PhD in experimental psychology and human cognition. He held two Endowed Chairs at private institutions in the United States, and held a position of Visiting Scholar at Haifa University. He has published about fifty articles and chapters in several books including a chapter in a book on academic perspective on Genesis. He's also received about 1 million dollars worth of grants and lives in Jerusalem with his wife. He has three married daughters, one of whom lives in Israel.