In transformational times, assessing and reassessing one’s basic assumptions is critical for navigating the confusing and dangerous shoals of public and foreign affairs. Like those who perpetually “fight the last war,” far too many people are inclined to view every development through the lens of their own experience. The conflict in Syria and the U.S. government shutdown may be two differing but relevant cases in point.
The United States and Russia may have agreed to a framework for identifying and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons, but for all of the difficulties associated with getting rid of this arsenal it is no longer the critical issue it once was in determining the outcome of the conflict. The nature of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad is. With a Geneva II peace conference in the works, the international community is grappling with the inherent problems of assessing and making progress with a dangerously fractured opposition.
Despite the U.S.-Russian agreement, these two countries have yet to have a full meeting of the minds on the nature of the Syrian opposition and what that means for the outcome of the civil war and the future of the region.
It appears from the outset that the United States has downplayed the growing role of al-Qaeda- linked groups among the anti-Assad opposition. Just last month, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaeda and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists…Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”
Secretary Kerry also suggested that the United States would somehow end up as the power broker were Assad to be ousted — going on to say that this would require a negotiation on who would eventually run Syria.
The Russians have been at best skeptical of American assumptions and at worst shocked by what they might describe as U.S. naiveté. Rightly or wrongly, their take on the what they regard as an opposition riddled with Islamist radicals has led them to support the Syrian government at all costs –as their way of keeping a lid on the growing extremism in that country, and the potential for it to further destabilize the region.
The differences in Russian and American perspectives on this says a lot about the way our respective cultures interpret facts—not surprisingly, largely through the lens of our own historical experiences.
The potential for a minority faction takeover of an opposition movement is is infused in the Russian mind. Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the minority Bolshevik faction in the opposition Russian Social Democratic Worker’s Party, staged a successful coup in 1917. This power grab marginalized the majority of his party, the Mensheviks, and overturned a nascent parliamentary government in Russia—thus ushering in communism and the establishment of the Soviet Union, which lasted for more than seventy years.
The power of a radical minority, as the Russians well know, garners its strength and capability from its utter devotion to its cause and a willingness to use any means whatsoever to accumulate and ultimately seize power. With such determination, others who are unwilling or unable to be similarly focused and ruthless often have virtually no leverage at the end of the day.
On the U.S. home front we enjoy the blessings of stable government. The prevailing mood of the majority has largely triumphed. But due to continuing standoffs over fiscal matters, many people in America are beginning to wonder if we may have inaccurately analyzed a developing brand of domestic extremism. While they do not necessarily advocate violence, fringe elements on the right and left are extremists nonetheless as they do not accept any form of compromise; they get their energy from the unwavering righteousness of their causes.
At the moment, a faction of the Tea Party movement has provided the “leadership,” albeit one with a radical agenda, to shut down the United States government for the first time in 17 years. Moderates and traditional conservatives, fearful of their political tactics, have only just begun to realize the true danger posed by this dedicated and unyielding group.
Until now moderate Republicans have tolerated this minority in their ranks, assuming that in the end they could control, if not appease, this small faction. But the GOP establishment’s gamble may fail, threatening the party’s prospects for the mid-term elections and possibly damaging its longer term viability. The attention-seeking Senator Ted Cruz and his ilk are not dedicated to defunding the Affordable Care Act as much as they seek to dismantle much of the federal government. It appears that they will stop at nothing short of getting their way, since they have no strategy for ending this stalemate. While it is inconceivable that this minority’s tactics could extend beyond legislative measures, the potential to do catastrophic harm to our economy looms with the coming debt ceiling negotiations.
While the situation in Syria and the United States are in no way contextually similar, there is at least one lesson we can learn from what is now unfolding. Our collective experience of “majority rules” is the lens through which the United States often reflexively evaluates developments – at home and abroad. In the 20th century our system largely shielded us from political and sectarian violence. Even with a fortunate history, however, we are living in a fast-moving era that requires us to keep an open mind – constantly reevaluating the true nature of what is really happening. The United States should not underestimate people who have a fanatical passion to prevail – not overseas, and apparently not even in the halls of Congress.