A story from the Middle East's past to help understand its present: One evening in Cairo, British Ambassador Sir Miles Lampson arrived at the royal palace accompanied by the commander of the British army in Egypt and "stalwart military officers armed to the teeth." While he waited to meet King Farouk, Lampson heard "the rumble of [British] tanks and armoured cars, taking up positions round the palace." It was February 1942; Nazi general Erwin Rommel's Afrikakorps threatened to conquer Egypt, and the British wanted a government firmly in the Allied camp. Lampson demanded that the young, Axis-leaning king abdicate, but accepted a compromise: Farouk appointed the head of the Wafd Party, Mustafa al-Nahhas Pasha, to head a pro-British government. "So much for the events of the evening, which I confess I could not have enjoyed more," wrote Sir Miles, reporting to London on his coup d'état.
In the days of empires, superpowers could deal with Middle Eastern politics that way, at least sometimes. Lampson's pleasure in his evening exemplifies imperial disdain for purportedly lesser nations. If we put aside his mood, though, a historical judgment of the coup is complicated. On one hand, Britain squashed Egypt's sovereign institutions. On the other, Farouk's constitutional monarchy was hardly a democracy. Until the coup, in fact, the Wafd would probably have won free elections. And the world really did hang in the balance in February 1942. A pro-Axis government could have weakened Britain's hold on Egypt. If Rommel reached the Nile, it seemed likely that the Nazi army would roll through the Middle East all the way to Persia's oil fields. On the third hand, the coup discredited the Wafd Party, which had represented liberal Egyptian nationalism. The political vacuum was filled by the Muslim Brotherhood and by the radical pan-Arabism of the Egyptian officers who overthrew Farouk 10 years later. Perhaps the weakness of Egyptian liberals today, facing the army and the Brotherhood, dates to Lampson's imperial evening in 1942.
One thing is certain: The empires are gone, and will not return. The memory of their racism and rapaciousness prevents any mourning. Yet, facing the crises in Egypt and Syria, the voices demanding American action sometimes mix necessary moral outrage with an implied belief that the United States can flex the imperial power of old. If Barak Obama hasn't replaced governments, he stands accused of weakness of character. In reality, the imperative to act is much greater than the ability to do so.
After the Egyptian military deposed President Mohammed Morsi in July, Obama was roundly criticized for not declaring that the coup was a coup, which would trigger a cutoff of U.S. aid. The criticism has only increased since the army's brutal confrontation with Muslim Brotherhood protesters. True: Economic and military assistance didn't keep the Egyptian army from overthrowing an elected government or from using live fire against demonstrators. But a superpower's aid to a client isn't a remote control. At most, it provides a measure of influence. A total cutoff is a threat that can be carried out just once. It can end the client-patron relationship, eliminate the superpower's influence, and endanger what's left of the client state's internal stability or external security. The more critical the client is to stability in its region, the less attractive that is.
In Egypt's case, the Obama administration faces another quandary. Morsi was indeed elected, but was busy demonstrating what an illiberal democracy is. The military took advantage of mass protests against his rule to justify overthrowing him. For some large and immeasurable part of the Egyptian public, the Muslim Brotherhood is responsible for the crisis and the violence—as shown best by the attacks against the Coptic Christian minority. A complete end to aid risks alienating that part of the public. Unofficial delay in delivering some military and economic assistance isn't a muscular reaction, but may have a better chance of pushing the military regime toward restoring civilian rule, or at least reducing violations of human rights.
The chemical weapons attack in Syria has provided an even sharper message about the limits of power, even when you have the world's strongest military. Ignoring the corpses in Damascus would indicate that all U.S. threats are empty, and send the message that mass murder by gas is an accepted part of war. Yet there's no strategic goal in Syria that Tomahawk missiles can serve.
The only way to destroy Syria's chemical arsenal would be a ground operation to take control of bases, secure them, and begin the slow process of destroying the weaponry, Israeli expert Yiftah Shapir explains. Shapir, head of the Military Balance Project at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, says that air attacks on Syria's chemical-weapons installations could indeed be disastrous, releasing poison gases. An American offensive that topples Bashar al-Assad's regime only increases the danger. While most weapons for delivering gases require large military units, rebel groups might be able to seize and use rockets or shells with chemical warheads as they turn from fighting the regime to fighting each other.
Here lies the core of the problem: There is no reasonable strategy for an outside power to make Syria into one functioning state again. An American ground invasion is certainly not the method, even if there were someone in Washington interested in the idea. Internally, Syria "is even more complicated than Iraq," Shapir argues, with "all sorts of internal rivalries that have reemerged." Today the most likely outcome of the civil war, he says, is "disintegration and a long period as a failed state."
Under those circumstances, America can strike targets that are highly visible symbols of the regime as punishment for using chemical arms—and hope that misdirected Tomahawks do not add to the civilian death toll. No air attack will create a stable, peaceful Syria.
If the United States and it allies want to reduce suffering, they might turn much greater efforts and funds to helping the 2 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, who are not likely to go home any time soon, if ever. That is much more within the realm of the possible than surrounding the palace with tanks, installing a new government and going home for a drink, even if it is less muscular and does not make for such an enjoyable evening.