Discussing any issue very much depends on the starting point. I have been experiencing a huge disconnect relating to what has taken place in Egypt. The usual talking heads, inside the beltway edition, are already opining over what the United States must do to deal with the "Egypt problem." Apart from the conceit that it is up to Washington to "do something," operating under the assumption that anyone will even listen to President Obama, one has to ask what are the interests that can plausibly be construed as vital to the United States. Apart from the usual concern for how Israel might be viewing developments, I can’t find any, and in that context, I can do nothing but welcome enthusiastically the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and his eventual replacement by a freely elected government.
Examine for a moment some of what passes for thoughtful analysis in Washington. Steve Clemons of The Washington Note describes how "Mubarak’s Egypt was a longstanding American ally that cooperated with the United States on a long list of issues, ranging from combating terrorism to assisting US military operations in the Middle East to helping secure shipping lanes to facilitating Arab-Israeli negotiations. The tectonic shift going on in Egypt, and in the broader Middle East, may have dramatic effects on the future price of oil, the extent of American regional influence, Israeli security, and a host of other key questions."
Sounds good, doesn’t it, and it includes one of those real comfort words, "tectonic." But if you look at the issues raised separately, first of all Egypt is not an ally of the United States in any real sense. It just has some converging interests lubricated by $1.5 billion in annual military aid from Washington that is given solely to sustain the peace treaty with Israel. As far as I can tell, the cooperation on terrorism has been good but selective and most notable for engagement in the rendition program, in which suspects were snatched by CIA teams and sent to Egypt for "questioning." Assisting US military operations in the Middle East? The US has no bases in Egypt. Is Steve referring to Desert Storm? That was a long time ago. Securing shipping lanes likewise…does he mean the Suez Canal? The Suez Canal is a major source of income for whatever form of government emerges in Egypt and it will be open. Facilitating Arab-Israeli negotiations must mean that Cairo has permitted negotiations to take place on Egyptian soil, but they could just as easily be held somewhere else.
And then there are the downside issues cited by Clemons. The price of oil would only be influenced if the Suez Canal were to be permanently closed, which is far from likely, and even if it were to happen, shipments of oil could use alternative routes. American regional influence only matters if one assumes that such influence is necessary for some good reason and I for one can’t imagine what that might be. And then there is Israeli security, the proverbial six hundred pound gorilla in the room as US concern for Egypt appears to really be all about Israel. It is difficult to imagine that Egypt has any intention to go to war with Israel again. No one is calling for that. Hopefully, the new government will ease the Israeli imposed blockade of Gaza, and if they do, that is for the best. Sure, it’s comforting to have a bunch of dictators at your beck and call doing what Washington and Tel Aviv think best, and a transition to popular rule will produce bumps along the way as it has in Eastern Europe, but no one in his right mind could ever think that the status quo in the Middle East was sustainable. Nor did it really benefit either the United States or Israel.
Switching over to the Washington Post front page, one finds the same jumping off point. Scott’s Wilson’s article "Resignation opens vacuum where ally stood," which describes the changes in Egypt presenting "as much peril as promise." Per Wilson, Obama has been "managing a volatile political standoff that paralyzed a regional ally." Now he must ensure that the generals "carry out the political and legal changes necessary to guarantee fair elections later this year." Excuse me Scott, but I did not detect much managing of a standoff by the White House and I don’t think anyone else but you saw it either. And why is it incumbent on Obama to ensure anything in the next few months? The choices have to be made by the Egyptians and the White House would be best advised to wish them well, get out of the way, and let them get on with it. If they ask for help, give it to them with no strings attached. If they do not, leave them alone. Try to remember that when outgoing President Mubarak sought to get popular support for his staying in office the one thing he cited in his televised address was his anger at outsiders interfering in his country’s politics. It was a comment that he knew would resonate, even if it wasn’t enough to save his government. Obama should pay attention and not step into that trap.
The argument about how America’s pundits and politicians are shaping the discussion on Egypt is critically important because Egypt might only be the first of a number of states that could seek regime change from autocracy to at least some form of popular mandate. If the United States decides that it has no vital interests at stake justifying interfering in that process it will be welcomed by many while serving as a benign enabler of change. If it goes the other way and decides it has to shape and guide what is developing there will only be trouble and bad feeling all around. So too the argument about the possible role of the Muslim Brotherhood is a fool’s game. Come down heavy, and Washington will virtually guarantee a bad result. Letting the Egyptians decide who they want to speak for them is ultimately a much saner course to follow. If the Brotherhood emerges as the leading party, which is by no means certain, it will have to govern, meaning that it will need to work on fixing the crony capitalism economy, find jobs for the people, and feed, clothe, and house 80 million Egyptians. It will have its hands full and making mischief in Sinai or anywhere else will not be on the agenda.
Ron Paul put it best, as he so often does, when he commented that the current US policy in the Middle East has been a complete failure because it rests on a premise of interference in other peoples’ affairs. Propping up dictators in return for stability and predictability is a bad bargain and, as he put it, "we need to do a lot less a lot sooner." America’s intervention in the politics of an entire region to create an ultimately unstable balance of power has always been a policy waiting to fail. President Obama would be best advised to follow the advice proffered in George Washington’s Farewell Address: "Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct. And can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period a great nation to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence." Stirring words and sentiments that speak to the heart and soul. How far we have wandered from our Founders.