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.

H.L. Mencken wrote that for every complex problem there is one solution “that is simple, neat, and wrong.” When it comes to the American response to the crisis in Egypt, it appears we have two of them.

One relies on the idea that the US can determine the outcome of this new transition period. The other depends on the notion that there will be dire consequences if we back the opposition and a supporter of (former) President Hosni Mubarak retains power. Both assumptions, while seductive, are false.

Consequently, Washington has taken an ineffective, middle-of-the road approach.

As Egyptian history continues to sprint forward following Mr. Mubarak's resignation, the Obama administration should back the opposition much more decisively, however disparate and uncertain its makeup and aims. For if one of Mubarak’s comrades in the military or his National Democratic Party emerges stably in power, we lose very little. They will not change the policies we care about. If the opposition ends up gaining power, however, our position is dramatically stronger than it would be otherwise.

President Obama cheered on the spirit of the Egyptian people today and called on the military to ensure a speedy path toward free and fair elections. Though he did not commit himself to anything, let's hope it was the first step toward a new policy.

Obsessed with the first faulty argument, most of Washington has pondered one question above all: Who do we want to take the reins of Egyptian power?

Gary Sick outlined the supposed challenges to this decision in Foreign Policy a few weeks ago, “Should you back the regime to the hilt, in the conviction that a change of leadership would likely endanger your most precious security interests? Or should you side with the opposition – either because you agree with its goals or simply because you want to be on the ‘right side of history’ (and in a better position to pursue your policy objectives) once the dust has settled?”

According to this view, once we’ve determined which endgame best serves our cold interests, warm ideals, or some tepid combination of the two, we are to throw our power – indeed, our hegemonic influence – behind that outcome.

We're not pharaoh-makers

Even if we wanted to, however, we cannot fix this fight. We simply lack the power to be pharoah-makers.

Do we have influence? Yes. Approximately $1.5 billion in annual aid has to buy something. We have the ear of the political and military elites and we have the threat of turning off the spigot. But that’s not worth much in revolutionary times, when everything is on the line – the meaning of the past, the direction of the future, and maybe life itself for the losing side.

Given these stakes, we are, like George Washington Carver, working with peanuts. Imagine us presenting regime leaders with the choice of maintaining power without American aid and support, or losing power entirely. And while the opposition would welcome Mr. Obama’s assistance, they are not about to change their plans if it’s not forthcoming.

Yet many commentators rely on the assumption that US holds enormous sway over the final outcome. In The Daily Beast, Leslie Gelb worried about the Muslim Brotherhood seizing power and set out a complex best-case-scenario featuring a transition toward “real democracy.” He called on the US to push hard toward this outcome. Stephen Walt argued in Foreign Policy that from his “realist” perspective, the US ought to advance the protesters’ cause, since a democratic Egypt would be more stable domestically, more respected internationally, and thus more valuable as an ally. Leon Wieseltier wrote in The New Republic that “we must do what we can to influence [the revolution],” and in favor of the democratic protesters.

If only we could. We can still control a lot of the world, just not all of it all the time. If we had good reason to believe our influence would tip the balance, it would be a different scenario. But we don’t.

People who realize this, the Obama administration seemingly included, tend to endorse the second “simple, neat, and false” solution. It goes like this. Since we cannot determine the revolution’s outcome, we ought to wait and see who will emerge victorious and then throw our support to that side. In the meantime, we ought to use what limited influence we have, but above all ride a malleable middle ground position.

Yes, no, maybe

Like a good politician faced with a question he’d rather not answer, Mr. Obama and his team have said yes, no, and maybe at the same time, refusing to commit themselves to any particular outcome, and making pitches to each side that they have America’s support.

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.

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.

Jacob Bronsther, a former Fulbright Scholar and graduate student in political theory at Oxford University, is a law student at New York University.

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