Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Perils of Taking Sides

David Koyzis


By David Koyzis
September 6, 2013

In Malcolm Magee’s fascinating book on Woodrow Wilson’s “faith-based foreign policy,” What the World Should Be, the author notes that, in the two major conflicts during Wilson’s  administration, the president took sides largely out of a desire to divide the world into obvious “good guys” and “bad guys.” In the Mexican civil war, Wilson intervened on behalf of the faction to which he ascribed the most righteousness, although the murky realities of that country’s politics should have elicited a more cautious response. Similarly, during the First World War, Wilson’s admiration for British political institutions and his instinctive distrust of “German theology” predisposed him to commit the United States to the cause of London and Paris against Berlin and Vienna.

A century later, we face similar complexities in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, a series of popular uprisings which began with high hopes of a smooth transition to democracy but whose tragic reality has been civil warfare. The rhetoric of the Arab Spring fits into a larger narrative with which Americans are familiar: Subjugated people living under tyranny finally tire of oppression, rise up, overthrow their despotic rulers, and claim liberty for themselves and their communities. Having overturned a self-serving oligarchy, they set up a government more responsive to their own needs and aspirations.

Yet this narrative does not entirely fit the current situation in a region where there are no obvious good guys and bad guys.

First, Egypt. After the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square toppled President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Americans cheered at the prospect of free elections in a country misruled for so many decades by a nationalist oligarchy. Surely it marked the start of a democratic era for a hard-pressed people. However, as history has proven time and again, vital democracy is less about elections than about the rule of law and the just treatment of people under the law. As the Center for Public Justice’s Guidelines for Government explains, governments must be subject to the law and govern in accordance with it, recognizing the need to adjudicate the divergent interests within its jurisdiction.

Governments in the grip of an obvious ideology are typically slow to recognize this need. For them, diversity is something to be overcome, not conciliated. It is not incidental that, during the decades when Arab nationalists were in power under President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his successors, Egypt became less ethnically and religiously diverse. No longer welcome after more than two millennia, Egyptian Jews and Greeks left the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria, in many cases migrating to Israel and Greece respectively. Coptic Christians would have to assume an Arab identity if they wished to play a role in the new, more homogeneous Egypt.

Nationalism has since been supplanted by Islamism as the ideology du jour in the Middle East. The current conflict pits the remnants of a decaying Arab nationalism against Islamist partisans. Neither side obviously represents democracy and the rule of law as we know it in the west. When the Egyptian military removed Mohammad Morsi from the presidency, supporters of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood accused them of committing an undemocratic act. Worse, Islamists have targeted the minority Coptic Christian community’s churches, schools, and other institutions for attack in the wake of Morsi’s ouster.

Calls have been made for American intervention in Egypt. But on whose side? The “undemocratic” military or the angry Islamists whose candidate won the 2012 election?

Now to Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s nationalist government is currently fighting the Free Syrian Army for control of the country. There can be little doubt of the ruthlessness of Assad, who is not above committing atrocities against his own people, including the shocking August 21 chemical attack on a Damascus suburb. As I write this, the US Congress is preparing to debate some form of punitive strike against the Assad regime. Yet, like Egypt’s Islamists, the Free Syrian Army has been targeting that country’s Christians as well, including the massacre of citizens in the predominantly Christian village of al-Duvair on May 27.

So how does one intervene justly in a conflict with no obvious “good guys”? Easy answers are not to be found, but classic Just War principles require of political authorities careful attention to the possible outcome of any proposed military action. Despite the best of intentions, Wilsonian idealism, with its rush to take sides in messy conflicts, carries the risk of exacerbating injustice. A better, if far from perfect, approach would see a multilateral effort to mitigate the worst injustices on the ground while refraining from aggravating the situation with shows of force that take insufficient account of long-term consequences.

- David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. His award-winning Political Visions and Illusions will soon be out in a Portuguese-language edition.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”