The Sports Fan's Guide to the Coup in Egypt and the Civil War in Syria

By Mike Dorf

How should President Obama, Secretary Kerry and other U.S. government officials think about yesterday's coup in Egypt, the ongoing civil war in Syria and policy towards the Middle East (and the rest of the world) more broadly?  Historians would no doubt point to parallels with other tragic betrayals: The storming of the Bastille and the Declaration of the Rights of Man gave way to the Terror and eventually to Napoleon; the anti-Tsarist revolution of early 1917 gave way to the Bolshevik revolution and civil war, ultimately paving the way for seven decades of misery under Soviet Communism; the broad-based coalition of anti-Shah groups enabled the Ayatollahs to claim power in Iran; etc.  Thus, historians who, at the beginning of the Arab Spring, cautioned that this movie probably wouldn't end well, may well be saying "we told you so" at this point.

Fair enough.  I'm not a historian.  As an American constitutional lawyer, I don't have a whole lot to contribute in the current moment either.  It's tempting to draw parallels between Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus and every suspension of a constitution by some foreign military leader, but the particularities outweigh the similarities.  That is why when, from time to time, I have offered advice to people in other countries on how to draft constitutions, I never pretend to know how various choices--federal versus unitary; presidential versus parliamentary; centralized versus decentralized constitutional review--will play out in their context.  Usually I preface any such advice with a gigantic disclaimer.  In the current moment, my constitutional law expertise seems at best tangential.

Nonetheless, I will make an observation from my perspective as a sports fan.  Seriously.  Consider the recently concluded NBA Finals.  I'm a Knicks fan but the Knicks lost in the second round.  Should I root for the Miami Heat or the San Antonio Spurs?  When in doubt, I root for the underdog, which was supposedly the Spurs here, but if so, only by a little.  The Spurs also had an emotional appeal as a bunch of aging players who were somehow playing like they were much younger.  But I felt greater cultural affinity for Miami than San Anotonio and much as I admire Tim Duncan's achievements, I have always disliked his professions of shock whenever he is called for a foul.  Add to that my resentment that they won a couple of earlier championships because Bruce Bowen's aggressive defense consisted of punching opposing players in the gut when the refs weren't looking and I found it hard to support the Spurs.  But how could I root for the Heat?  It was a real dilemma.  In the end, I just watched without making a decision and found myself backing the Spurs.

Meanwhile, a non-sports-fan friend of mine whom I told about the dilemma asked me why I had to root for either team.  "It's not like it makes a difference to the outcome."  Only a non-sports fan could ask such a question.  Unless you are a fan of a rigged sport, you will frequently find yourself watching some big game in which you have no obvious cheering interest.  You could just watch the game unfold but for me and, I suspect, for most sports fans, it's more fun to watch when you're hoping one team or the other will win.  Indeed, to just watch a game unfold without hoping it goes one way or the other seems almost inconsistent with the idea of watching a game.

Nonetheless, my friend had a point.  Why should I care whether San Antonio or Miami wins the NBA championship?  It's not even clear that people who live in San Antonio or Miami should care, given how professional sports teams are constructed.

Likewise with the Arab Spring.  Watching the events unfold in Egypt earlier this week, I found myself trying to figure out whom and what I should be rooting for.  I am sypmathetic with the cause of the secular protesters who objected to the circumstances of the election that produced Mohamed Morsi as President, to the way he ruled, and more generally to the way in which Islamists had apparently hijacked the revolution.  At the same time, however, I thought the protesters were playing with fire in taking to the streets to demand the ouster of a President whose election, though flawed, was much more fair than anything Egypt had known.  It was also hardly clear to me that enlisting the military would lead to the replacement of Morsi with a more broadly acceptable democratic government, rather than to a return to military rule.  At best, time will tell.

The situation in Syria is at least as unsettling.  The Assad regime is absolutely brutal.  The opposition contains some clearly preferable elements.  But it also contains al Q'aeda-linked fighters whose triumph would hardly be an improvement.  And the civil war in Syria increasingly looks like one front in a regional armed struggle between Shia and Sunni Islam.

The question of "whom should we root for" in Egypt or Syria may appear different from the question of whether to root for the Heat or the Spurs, for while my cheering one team or the other (from my living room) has no impact on the outcome, U.S. policy can be directed to favor one side or another in foreign conflicts.  But even though we can probably affect the course of history, it's not at all clear that we can do so in ways that we want.

Consider the fateful decisions of prior Administrations to support the anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan and to favor Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.  The first decision laid the groundwork for civil war, then the rise of the Taliban, then the emergence of al Q'aeda, then 9/11, and eventually to the very long war we have fought in Afghanistan.  The second decision led Saddam Hussein to regard the U.S. as an ally, which led to the miscalculation that led to the first Gulf War, paving the way eventually for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and all the misery that ensued.  Could things have been even worse if we had not intervened in the ways we did?  It's possible, but they also could have gone a lot better.

The point is not that the U.S. should be indifferent to the fate of Egyptians, Syrians or others.  The U.S. has interests and values.  No one in the region has exactly the same interests and values as the U.S. and, unlike with the NBA Finals, we can't just pick the side we like the best (or dislike the least), support that side, and then think this will lead to the outcome that is best for us.  These events are dynamic and complicated.  Anything we do could prove counterproductive.

American policy makers who take this perspective risk looking mealy-mouthed and weak.  That is how President Obama's statement regarding the Egyptian events--which more or less embraced the same principles articulated here, minus the sports analogy--may have sounded.  But the risks of speaking, much less acting, more boldly, are probably far greater.