The critiques of Egypt coming out of Washington are getting louder by the day. After calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step aside, President Obama said this morning, “We pray that the violence in Egypt will end and the rights and aspirations of the Egyptian people will be realized.” State Department spokesman PJ Crowley took up the call for “free, fair and credible elections,” and added that Washington hopes they'll happen sooner rather than later. Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, was a bit more insistent, commenting that a transition is needed right away—“now means now.” Both also drew attention to the violence that has broken out in Egypt. On Twitter last night, Crowley said that perpetrators of the violence “must be held accountable,” and this morning he added that Washington condemns attempts to “intimidate international journalists in Cairo.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also denounced the violence in a phone call with Egypt’s new vice president, Omar Suleiman, and called on the government to find out who was responsible for the bloodshed.
Sen. Rand Paul did it. He told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that all foreign aid should be halted. Even the $3 billion a year that Israel collects. Paul's point is simple: we can't afford it. Keep shelling out precious American money to foreign mendicants and soon enough we won't be able to fund Medicare.
To be sure, it took some prodding from Blitzer. Paul prefaced his remarks with some pious bows toward Israel's great worthiness as a fount of democracy in the Middle East. But he didn't flinch.
Paul's remarks signify that he is set to become a disaster for the GOP and to remain a hero for the Tea Party. The GOP actually might have made inroads with Jewish voters in 2012. But if Paul sends up enough signal flares against Israel, he's going to make Jewish voters extremely nervous about the GOP's overall position. For House Republican leader Eric Cantor, a pal of William Kristol, Paul is a certified nightmare. Already Democrats are seizing upon Paul's remarks to trumpet their own Israel bona fides and induce doubts about the GOP's loyalty to the Jewish state.
Paul evinces every sign of sticking to his Tea Party positions. His maiden address in the Senate, as Dana Milbank pointed out in the Washington Post, consisted of a lengthy denunication of the "Great Compromiser" Henry Clay. How weird is that? Talk about dissing a Kentucky homestate hero. That's like saying Seattle Slew wasn't really a great race horse. Paul's point was that he won't compromise and that Clay foolishly did. (In fact Clay helped keep the United States from splitting in two. He also happened to be a hero of Abraham Lincoln's. But never mind.)
As fears and concerns get expressed about less salubrious directions the political turmoil in Egypt might take, a frequent theme is, “Watch out for the Islamists!” More specifically, the theme is to watch out for the Muslim Brotherhood. A common scale for worry among many Americans (and Israelis) about Egypt's political future is how much influence the Brotherhood may have in whatever new political order emerges from the current unrest. Columnists nervously cite the connections between the Muslim Brotherhood and the ideologist Sayyid Qutb and raise the specter of the Brotherhood becoming the vehicle for the installation of a radical regime that will abrogate the peace treaty with Israel and destroy human rights.
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is a formidable force. It is not to be dismissed as weaker than it appears on grounds that alternative groups in opposition to the incumbent regime have been outlawed and repressed. The Brotherhood has also been outlawed, although tolerated by the regime to varying degrees. In the semi-legal way it has endeavored to participate in electoral politics—in which the Brotherhood's parliamentary candidates ran as independents or under the label of another party—it performed remarkably well. In past elections it has done so well that it limited the number of seats it contested so as not to win too many seats and trigger a fresh crackdown by the regime. The Brotherhood is in some ways the best organized opposition group in Egypt. There is good reason to expect it to play a significant role in a future political order.
Some commentators have argued that the United States should abstain from taking sides in Egypt’s unfolding political crisis. What a curious and ill-informed line of thinking.
Since 1979, the United States has provided Egypt with an annual average of $2 billion in economic and military foreign assistance—that totals more than $60 billion over the last 30 years. Newsflash: the United States is already involved. From NBC’s Richard Engel:
Most Egyptians see the United States as having stood solidly by President Mubarak while the government here grew more and more corrupt. And they see the Americans as complicit in it. And just today, for example, when we were out on streets this is what a lot of people were showing us about American involvement. If you can see in my hands this is one of the tear gas canisters and very clearly written in English on it, it says "Made in the USA by Combined Tactical Systems from Jamestown, Pennsylvania.” And they say this is the kind of support that the United States has been giving to the Egyptian government and bears some responsibility, although today it is trying to say that it never backed Mubarak so much, it has been calling for reforms for a long time, Egyptians don't see it that way.
New START is finally getting off the ground. Over a year since the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expired, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will finalize the new agreement this Saturday in Munich. The U.S. Senate put its stamp of approval on the document in December, and Russia’s Parliament approved the accord last week. In addition to imposing limits on strategic missiles and nuclear weapons, the treaty includes verification rules, and that means each side will get a glimpse into the other’s arsenals for the first time in almost two years. Clinton will be in Germany for the Munich Security Conference. Also expected to be in attendance: Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the host country’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
Steve Clemons, the editor of the Washington Note, can leave behind a vertiginous feeling, as you try and follow his various activities, ranging from blogging to worldwide travel, from holding forth at his perch at the New American Foundation to holding salons at Restaurant Nora with Washington figures. One day he's arranging an open letter of bigwigs pushing the Obama administration to denounce Israeli settlements. The next day he's halfway around the world. On another he's hosting Grover Norquist or Zbigniew Brzezinski at a dinner.
At the same time, a profusion of blogs is emanating from his website. Nobody does it better. So it all prompted former Council on Foreign Relations head Leslie Gelb to muse in the New York Times that if the White House is looking for a new social secretary, which it is, who better than Clemons?
Clearly the White House has been struggling with its previous picks. Desiree Rogers flamed out. Julianna Smoot never caught on fire in the first place. Now the word is that a man should be considered for the post as well, a real master, as opposed to mistress, of ceremonies. And, indeed, if Obama were serious about bipartisan outreach, he would consider appointing Clemons, who has deep connections among both Democrats and Republicans.
Steve Walt has a good essay in Foreign Policy on the success of bad foreign policy ideas in the United States. I agree with his conclusion that “vigorous, unfettered” debate increases societal wisdom. But Walt doesn’t fully appreciate the central role salesmanship and BS play in a pluralist democracy like ours. He clings to the notion that bad ideas cause bad policy. In reality, it’s more the other way.
The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda Peter Bergen, who is as knowledgeable as anyone about Osama bin Laden, provides an informative status report about the hunt for his subject in an essay adapted from his new book The Longest War. Bergen argues that although the trail of bin Laden has grown cold, it is important to keep going after him. The issues involved are old. When I worked on counterterrorism in the 1990s, a major subject of discussion among those in the business was whether the United States would be better off with bin Laden dead or with him alive. The alternatives were seen as killing him versus capturing him. There was little doubt about the value of taking him out of commission one way or another, and much priority and effort were devoted to doing exactly that. Those efforts, by the way, and the inability to find bin Laden even after he became a target of enormous priority after 9/11, put a lie to the notion one sometimes hears that the U.S. government devoted insufficient attention to bin Laden in the years prior to 9/11.
Frank Wisner to the rescue! The former ambassador to Egypt and undersecretary of defense is heading to Cairo to try to take stock of ongoing protests and to reiterate what the administration has said about restraint and moving forward. State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said that the “retired diplomat” who has “deep experience in the region” will meet "with Egyptian officials and provid[e] his assessment.” Wisner is also set to have a sitdown with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He travels to Egypt amid the largest protests yet seen in the country. Thus far, there have not been any confrontations with Egyptian army forces tasked with maintaining security.
Meanwhile, Jon Huntsman, the U.S. Ambassador to China, told the White House that he will leave his post in the next few months. Despite rumors that Huntsman has his sights set on a presidential bid, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that he hasn’t “heard anybody say they know what the future holds for Ambassador Huntsman.” Reportedly, a political action committee has already been set up to get ready for his potential try for the Republican nod. Gibbs said the search for a replacement has already begun.
A big event is often seen as the precursor to a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Saddam Hussein has been defeated? Time for peace. Now the latest ructions in Egypt are reigniting the call for peace. German chancellor Angela Merkel told Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday that it's time for--what else?--new talks with the Palestinians, citing the "troubled times" in Egypt and Tunisia as rendering it "even more important to get on with the peace process."
Here at the National Interest the same plea has been made by Bruce Riedel and Paul Pillar. The argument seems to be something along the lines that there's never been a more urgent time to try and tamp down Islamic radicalism. The peace process can play an integral role.
To which one can only wonder, what peace process? There is a lot of toing and froing between the Israelis and Palestinians. So it has gone for decade after decade. Israel continues to build settlements. The Palestinians wallow in their plight. And the Arab world remains blind to the fact that it threw away most of its crediblity by rejecting the 1947 UN Partition plan, which was far more advantageous than anything it would get in negotiations today. It may well figure that time is on its side. The longer the Arabs and Palestinians hold out, the weaker Israel's strategic position becomes, both because of the Arabs living inside it and its longterm inability to digest the West Bank.
The truth is that renewed negotiations could actually inflame the Arab world, which might see them as a sellout to the Israelis. Radical Muslims probably figure they've never had it so good. Egypt and Jordan could fall under the sway of Islamic radicals. What's the incentive for the Arab world to endorse negotiations?