The Skeptics

Fear and Exhilaration in America

Chaos in Cairo’s streets has wrecked Hosni Mubarak’s presidency. The collapse of any dictatorship should please Americans. One of the world’s most durable dictators is being tossed into history’s dustbin. However, the process in Egypt has only started. The most difficult question always is how any so-called revolution ends. Tragically, revolts against repressive regimes often lead to even greater tyranny: consider the French, Russian, Chinese, and Iranian revolutions. The American experience to the contrary is almost unique in history.

Moreover, Mubarak long has been a key Washington ally. U.S. policymakers used to “doing business” with his regime fear that any government arising from the street will be more hostile to America, as well as Israel, which seems to matter almost as much to many U.S. policy-makers. For instance, potential GOP presidential candidate Michael Huckabee lamented that the Obama administration had done too little to support Egypt’s dictator. Yet Uncle Sam today is little more than an interested bystander in Egypt. The Obama administration has stumbled along, first standing by Mubarak, then issuing platitudes about reform, and finally pressing for a peaceful “transition.” But Washington’s opinion simply doesn’t matter much. Observed Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “neither the protestors nor the government are relying on signals from the United States.”

The Egyptian crowds seeking to oust Mubarak have no interest in what the U.S. desires. Indeed, many were angered by the administration’s original refusal, highlighted by Vice President Joe Biden’s reluctance to call Mubarak a dictator, to stand by the Egyptian people. Washington’s popular reputation, already low, fell even further. Alterman warned: “I don’t think there’s anything the U.S. can say or do that would change” the perception of U.S. backing for the Mubarak government.

Regime elites, including top commanders in the army, may care more about Washington’s opinion, but survival is their first priority. Gamal Mubarak, Hosni’s son and one-time presumed heir, is not the only member of the ruling establishment reported to flee overseas. Indeed, for members of the regime to stay in Cairo is to risk life as well as any ill-gotten gains. Unfortunately, the U.S. has no good options. Washington has been attempting to influence events in Egypt for decades. Once an ally of the Soviet Union, Cairo shifted to America’s side and made peace with Israel. Mubarak promoted U.S. foreign policy objectives in return for American acquiescence in his oppressive policies at home as well as bribes thinly disguised as aid, about $60 billion worth over the past three decades.

Long identified with Mubarak, Washington needs to try to separate itself from his regime and demonstrate that it cares more for the hopes of Egypt’s people than the power of Egypt’s elite. Even the Bush administration never pushed its celebrated support for democracy very hard, preferring perceived stability to opening a possible Islamic Pandora’s Box. The Obama administration has only been slowly edging in the democratic direction, worrying about future of authoritarian allies in Jordan, Yemen, and elsewhere. However, going further and attempting to promote particular individuals or factions is likely to be counterproductive. Having chosen wrong for so long, Washington is unlikely to choose right this time. U.S. policymakers have never demonstrated the necessary knowledge, foresight, and wisdom. More important, the U.S. government has no credibility even if anyone in Cairo was inclined to listen to those who previously embraced Mubarak so tightly. In Lebanon Druze leader Walid Jumblatt recently joined with Hezbollah to oust the government backed by Washington. He observed: “Why should we follow American advice in the name of democracy? They have nothing to teach us when they have supported dictators.” In Egypt today U.S. backing would be more likely to discredit than advantage friendly politicians. Thus, the Obama administration has little choice but to watch from Egypt’s sidelines, while preparing to deal with whatever replaces the Mubarak regime. Much ink has been spilled on Egypt’s alleged geopolitical importance. However that country matters far less today than during the Cold War.

Having an allied government in Cairo is helpful, not vital. A new government might reduce or end anti-terrorism cooperation, though even a government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood would be unlikely to support attacks on the U.S. If a radical regime closed the Suez Canal it would risk dooming itself by cutting foreign revenue needed to pacify an angry population.

Some Americans worry about Israel, placing concern for its security on par or even above that of America. For instance, Michael Huckabee, in Israel to celebrate construction of another illegal settlement on Palestinian territory, cited “real shock and surprise down to the average, on-the-street Israeli citizen at how quickly the Obama administration abandoned a 30-year-ally.” But if a new Egyptian government was foolish enough to attack Israel Cairo likely would become another occupied territory—and perhaps home to its own Israeli settlements, also to be promoted by Huckabee.

Thus, while adapting current policies towards fast-moving events in Egypt, the Obama administration should begin a longer-term transformation. The U.S. government should back away from attempting to micro-manage politics in Egypt or other foreign nations. Americans should support democracy and a liberal society in the best sense of the word. But U.S. officials should not be in the business of attempting to bolster or oust even authoritarian governments.

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