In 15 years of thinking, reporting and writing about global affairs, I’ve come to the conclusion (after plenty of false starts) that often the best way to understand and explain big events is not by focusing on them directly, but by approaching them through smaller stories.
This insight is probably not original or profound. But what started out as a rationalization for incompetence — when I first became a journalist, I knew so little about anything that even I could tell I had no business swinging for the fences — has, over the years, developed into a conviction.
It’s not that Big Ideas about the world aren’t important. The problem is that for those of us who aren’t George Kennan, coming up with them is preposterously difficult, and thus the results are usually boring and banal. Meanwhile, looking at the news through a tighter lens and trying to make unlikely connections can generate insights that might otherwise be missed. So, at least, I tell myself.
A good example of how this works can be found in the recent turmoil wracking the Arab world. After two-plus years of conflict and the spilling of so much blood (and ink), it’s hard to add value by tackling the narratives head-on. As I discovered last night at dinner trying to explain the pros and cons of the Egyptian coup to my 10-year old stepson, who ended up looking as befuddled as I felt, it’s hard enough just sussing out what to think for oneself.
But that’s precisely where those less-explored angles I mentioned can prove most useful. In this case, a valuable story-within-the-story to zoom in on is the competition for influence over the region that’s slowly emerged between two seemingly tangential players.
Back in early 2011, when the Arab uprisings first erupted, most pundits assumed the countries that would do most to shape their course from the outside would be the usual heavyweights: the United States, and maybe Turkey (the region’s one semi-functional Muslim democracy) and Iran (the neighborhood’s revolutionary spoiler).
Instead, as this newspaper’s Robert Worth pointed out this week, two oil-rich Gulf monarchies have seized the initiative and are duking it out for dominance.
The story starts in Syria. The two states — Saudi Arabia and Qatar — have both supported the uprising there from the beginning. But last Saturday their efforts to one-up each other broke into the open when the Syrian opposition picked a new, Saudi-backed leader over a more established candidate favored by Qatar.
This sub-rosa struggle became even clearer on Tuesday when, barely a week after Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s (Qatari-backed) president, was ousted by the military — and just hours after that military gunned down scores of his protesting supporters — Saudi Arabia swooped in and blessed the new regime with a $5 billion check (followed promptly by the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, which together kicked in another $7 billion).
All this is important for three reasons.
First, because the meddling is more likely to hurt than help. Syria and Egypt certainly do need outside aid, but the kind they’re getting from Doha and Riyadh seems sure to make things worse. After all, Morsi, despite his epic incompetence, managed to hold on as long as he did in large part thanks to $8 billion in aid he got from Qatar over his yearlong tenure.
Now the Saudis’ gift will similarly help his replacements stay afloat. But it will also enable more bad behavior in the process, by allowing the new government to avoid support from the International Monetary Fund, and thereby also avoid the painful but desperately needed spending reforms the I.M.F. was insisting on.
Second, the story matters because the squabble for primacy between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is itself proving toxic. In Syria, their jockeying kept the opposition leaderless for months just when government forces were making big gains and the rebels needed unity most. Now the opposition finally has a boss, yet his biggest credential seems to be his relation by marriage to the Saudi king.
Finally, just as important as what the Gulf states are up to is what their behavior reveals about what other, far more powerful countries are doing — or not doing. After all, little Saudi Arabia and tiny Qatar are only able to wield such outsize influence in Syria and Egypt today because they have the field virtually to themselves.
In other words, the big reason their adventurism is worth focusing on is because of the light it throws on an even larger story: the damage being done by the reluctance of United States and its allies to get more involved.
There are plenty of good reasons for their standoffishness, as U.S. and other officials are quick to explain. But this week’s events underscore the costs of that diffidence. In the absence of decisive action from Washington, London, Paris or Ankara, two autocratic monarchies that embrace medieval forms of Islam have grabbed the wheel and are following their own narrow interests.
And those interests — preserving authoritarian stability in Saudi Arabia’s case, and maximizing Doha’s diplomatic clout in Qatar’s — most definitely do not align with those of the West, or, for that matter, with those of the majority of the people of the Arab world.
In the end, of course, those same people — in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere — must determine their own fates. But they desperately need real help in the process. They’re getting precious little of that from us, and now we’re seeing the result. The West’s failure to set a clear policy in Egypt and Syria has let the Gulf sheiks set one for us. Is that really the way we want the outcome of the Arab Spring to be decided?
Now that’s a question even a 10-year old could answer on his own.