Sometimes, It’s Best Just to Get Out of the Way When History is Rolling Forward
The administration is torn between two competing visions put forward by the foreign policy establishment in Washington of what the US should do and say about the crisis in Egypt, and as is typical, they have chosen to split the difference.
This Washington Post editorial represents what might be termed the idealistic faction:
The United States should be using all of its influence – including the more than $1 billion in aid it supplies annually to the Egyptian military – to ensure the latter [regime change] outcome. Yet, as so often has happened during the Arab uprising of the past several weeks, the Obama administration on Friday appeared to be behind events. It called for an end to the violence against demonstrators and for a lifting of the regime’s shutdown of the Internet and other communications. Encouragingly, the White House press secretary said that the administration “will review our assistance posture based on events that take place in the coming days.”
But U.S. statements assumed that the 30-year-long rule of the 82-year-old Mr. Mubarak would continue. After speaking to Mr. Mubarak, President Obama said Friday night that he would continue to work with the Egyptian president; he did not mention elections. Instead, in an apparent attempt to straddle the two sides, the administration suggested that the solution to the crisis would come through “engagement” between the regime and the protesters.
Representing the realists, Rep.Thaddeus McCotter issued a statement published in Human Events to the effect that we should stand behind Mubarak:
Though many will be tempted to superficially interpret the Egyptian demonstrations as an uprising for populist democracy, they must recall how such similar initial views of the 1979 Iranian Revolution were belied by the mullahs’ radical jackbooted murderers, who remain bent upon grasping regional hegemony and nuclear weaponry.
In this crisis, the American people deserve candor and action from President Obama, and President Hosni Mubarak and General Tantawi.
This is not a nostalgic “anti-colonial uprising” from within, of all places, the land of Nassar. Right now, freedom’s radicalized enemies are subverting Egypt and other our allies.
There are good arguments that can be made for both positions – with very large caveats. Standing behind Mubarak and stability might be the desired goal but is it realistic at this point? Preventing radical Islamists from ascending to power might be beneficial to the US and Israel, but at what cost? Is any cost worth what it will now take to beat down the protests?
Of course, WaPo’s suggestion invites the worst case scenario. We have the Iranian revolution as a guide in this respect and to imagine jihadists in charge of the largest Arab country in the world with the largest military – a nation that would then be at odds with Israel – would cause any president to lose a considerable amount of sleep.
It should be remembered that the situation in which we find ourselves was not created overnight. Thirty two years of backing this thug by Democratic and Republican presidents alike while giving his military tens of billions of dollars seemed a good tradeoff at the time but, as a famous scholar once opined, “the chickens have come home to roost.” It’s too late for either scenario above. We can’t pull the rug from underneath Mubarak and expect the demonstrators to love us. Nor can we continue to support the Egyptian president and not expect whatever government the mob throws up to view us with anything but contempt.
The world is about to change and the administration is unable to decide what to do to help shape the future to the benefit of US interests. Is it the nature of the crisis that this is so? Or is it that Obama and his State Department are like a deer in the headlights when it comes to proposing options?
I tend to believe the former; any response, any action we take will not materially affect events to our advantage. It may be emotionally satisfying if the president were to come out four-square in favor of “democracy” and the demonstrators. But like the Iranian uprising, to what end would the rhetoric be directed? Would it be to save Mubarak? Save lives? Save the Camp David Accords that Caroline Glick makes a good case for it being all but dead now?
And as we now see, all of its possible secular and Islamist successors either reject outright Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel or will owe their political power to the support of those who reject the peace with the Jewish state. So whether the Egyptian regime falls next week or next year or five years from now, the peace treaty is doomed.
Is this scenario overblown? Heather Hurlburt thinks so:
Some American commentators have argued that Al Jazeera is somehow fanning Islamism and anti-Americanism with its coverage. But as Marc Lynch has pointed out, Egyptian citizens, like Tunisians before them, are so—justifiably—angry at their governments that it’s hard to imagine what new provocations the station could come up with. Similarly, concern about the relative strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, which espouses a fundamentalist strain of Islam and has championed and employed violence in the past, should be balanced against three other facts: (1) The Brotherhood has renounced violence and it has been active in Egyptian politics, transformed by an internal debate about whether and how to participate, for some time now; (2) Thus far, observers on the ground report that it is young, secular Egyptians who are leading this revolt; (3) The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition organization in Egypt, is a first-rank enemy of Al Qaeda, and has been for decades. (A chapter in the recent “Self-Inflicted Wounds” from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center lays out the feud, and how it has played out in Egypt, South Asia and elsewhere, in detail. Briefly, the Brotherhood’s goals have been more political and focused on individual governments—and thus less focused on what Bin Laden refers to as the “far enemy”—the United States homeland.) Meanwhile, it is reasonable to be concerned about the future role of radical extremists where other forces are weak, but this kind of scaremongering is actually quite ignorant; it’s also disheartening and potentially damaging to the true democrats—some of whom organize around Islam, and some of whom don’t—that are doing the struggling and dying right now. Americans, like others around the world, are instinctively cheering for them. They are right to do so.
Just because “secular oriented” young Egyptians appear to be in the forefront now, what are the chances that they will be a force in the new government? That kind of muddled, idealistic thinking is not helping. Blithely ignoring the Muslim Brotherhood’s anti-Semitism while downplaying their radical agenda (Hey! They hate al-Qaeda!) is more a demonstration of myopia than thoughtful analysis. Who cares if they hate Bin Laden? Is al-Qaeda the only Islamist group who wants to damage American interests or destroy Israel? I don’t want to make this an ideological critique but this kind of nonsense appears on the left far more than on the right. We are at war with radical Islam in all its forms.
Also, Hurlburt exhibits far too much faith in the wisdom of the mob. No one knows what might happen in a free and fair election, but if history is any guide, when given the choice, it is not unknown for Middle Eastern voters to choose the Islamists voluntarily. In Egypt’s case, where even Hurburt admits the Muslim Brotherhood is the most powerful and best organized opposition group, a victory by the Islamists, although not assured, would certainly be more than a possibility.
Hardly “scaremongering” or “ignorant” to point out the obvious.
I don’t know what the Obama administration could be doing that it isn’t doing right now. They might have tied the Vice President and gagged him. Biden’s statement about Mubarak not being a dictator was reminiscent of Carter’s New Year’s toast to the Shah, congratulating him for running a country that was an “island of stability” in the region. Within weeks, Carter was made to look like an idiot.
The State Department has ordered US diplomats out of the country. If Carter had done that, he may very well have won a second term – a counterfactual not lost on Obama. Their statements on the crisis reflect divided counsel, which isn’t surprising given our 32 year support for Mubarak and the mix of rationalists and idealists in our foreign policy establishment.
Sometimes, you just have to get out of the way when history is rolling forward and pick up the pieces afterward. It is unsatisfying to contemplate doing nothing, but in this case, it may be the best way to do no further harm to our interests than has already been inflicted.
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