Mubarak steps down. Will Obama step up?
Regarding the revolt in Egypt, Washington has so far taken an ineffective, middle-of-the road approach. Even as President Obama called for a credible path toward democracy, he must back the opposition protesters much more decisively.
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The logic, in terms of pure power concerns, is straightforward. If Mubarak’s people in the military and his party maintain control, Obama wants to preserve our strategic partnership with them, centered on Egyptian peace with Israel and opposition to radical Islamism. If the regime’s opponents take power in some form, either abruptly or as the result of a stable transition, Obama wants to be able to work with them as well, ideally preserving the alliance’s core features.Skip to next paragraph
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If we oppose the ultimately triumphant group, goes the argument, it will destroy our relationship with whomever ends up ruling Egypt. So we ought to bide our time, tacking this way and that, hedging out bets, until the outcome is more certain.
This two-way policy, however, only works in one direction. If we support the opposition vigorously, Mubarak’s people will not “punish” us if they retain power. The policies that would antagonize America would undermine Egpyt’s own interests, as they conceive of them.
They would not break the peace treaty with Israel. It would infuriate the world’s powers and conceivably could start a war. Nor would they embrace radical Islamism and terrorism. Much of their supposed legitimacy depends on the threat of and their opposition to Islamists. Nor would they ally with Iran.
They would not enact these policies even if we stopped donating that $1.5 billion. They don’t believe these policies would benefit Egypt, and they never have.
Mubarak’s mantra was “stability for the sake of development,” which these conservative policies reflect. The reason we have had an alliance with the Mubarak regime is not because we pay for one. It’s because Egypt’s and America’s strategic interests, as we each interpret them, dovetail. To harm us would be to harm themselves.
In the other direction, however, there are serious consequences if the opposition grabs power as we stand by quietly. During a revolution, a middle ground position means support for the status quo and the ancien régime, at least for those on the street and their leaders. The new government, whatever its makeup, and the people, will not forget. If America were perceived as a friend and supporter from the beginning, however, it would place us in a much stronger position as the new regime determines their understanding of Egyptian interests, and the place within them for our strategic partnership.
If we lose some credibility with our autocratic allies as a fair weather friend, that concern is vastly outweighed by positive impact greater support for the protesters would have on global Muslim opinion on America – to say nothing of maintaining integrity with our own ideals.
If this seems like a complex justification for a policy, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s chess, not checkers out there, and simple solutions, however artfully conceived, aren’t always right.