U.S. Foreign Policy and Egypt: Myths and Realities

Hosni Mubarak is on his way out as President of Egypt.  The protests have reached the critical tipping point: labor strikes are on schedule for Tuesday along with a million man march.   The Egyptian military, which ultimately will decide the fate of the embattled president, has already shown an inability or unwillingness to control the streets.  Soon its desire to preserve its reputation in post-Mubarak Egypt will force it to act against the President.  For the Americans two questions remain: How will this unrest affect U.S. interests and what can be done policy-wise to manage the situation.

Before addressing these questions, it makes sense to debunk some of the myths that have pervaded the conversation up to this point, especially with regards to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Myth #1:  The U.S. is in a position to dictate the future of Egypt.


This myth takes a variety of forms.  Some argue that the U.S. has the ability to push Mubarak out of power.  Undoubtedly, once he leaves, conspiracy theories involving nefarious U.S. involvement will proliferate.  In reality, the U.S. has relatively few policy levers to influence events in Egypt which will be determined by protesters and the military.  What can the U.S. do?  We can issue public statements in support of the democrats or in defense of the current regime; we can withhold or continue to supply military aid—or use military aid as a bargaining chip; we can use our close relationship with the military to gather intelligence, and we can work with other countries in the region (Israel, perhaps?) to diffuse the international element of the crisis.   The U.S. cannot dictate Egypt’s future; we cannot force Mubarak to leave.

Myth #2 (Corollary to Myth #1):  The events in Egypt prove the U.S. should have pushed stronger for reforms.

Those who argue that the U.S. should have pushed more aggressively for reforms make two mistakes.  They ignore the trade-offs regarding other national interests and the overestimate our ability to create change.  The U.S. has a close relationship with Egypt for a number of reasons.  Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar Sadat broke with the Soviet Union and recognized Israel, and since the 1990s, Egypt has also collaborated in the battle against Muslim extremists.  If the U.S. were to focus on political reforms, this would divert resources from these other critical areas of national security.  Even if you believe democracy is more important than anti-terror or the security of Israel, you have to also believe that the U.S. can successfully achieve political change simply by asking for it.  Given that undemocratic regimes seldom survive the reform process and have every incentive to resist this process, this is a highly dubious assertion.


Myth #3: Mubarak has been a “reliable partner for the U.S.”


Events in Egypt prove that Mubarak has not been a reliable partner to the US.  As a general rule of thumb, reliable partners do not get overthrown in popular uprisings.  The reason Washington is holding its breath is that there is no guarantee that the current Egyptian policy towards either Israel or anti-terror will be adopted by the next regime, particularly if the Muslim Brotherhood takes power.  Mubarak has lost his legitimacy, it remains to be seen whether his government’s policies have as well.

There is a reason the U.S. prefers to do business with democracies quite apart from the “democracy is good everyone deserves liberty” rhetoric.  Under a democracy, the transition of power is relatively predictable.  We can be relatively sure that U.S.-Japanese relations will not change wholesale, even if a new government comes in opposing the Okinawa base, for instance.   Under a dictatorship the transition from power is usually messy, and the dictator is almost always wholly discredited.

What can be done?

While the U.S. cannot dictate Egypt’s future, there are actions that can be taken to improve the likelihood that the next government is pro-American.  We can work the backchannels to improve the likelihood that the transition is smooth.  Secretary of Defense Gates reportedly talked to military counterparts in Egypt, yesterday.  He is undoubtedly assuring them that U.S. military aid will continue even if Mubarak is removed.  The U.S. should also be talking to Israel, diffusing the tension that our most important Middle Eastern ally feels at this moment in time.  If Israel feels threatened and takes action, even defensive action, this could be interpreted in Egypt the wrong way, lending support to the radical parties’ anti-Semitic agenda.

By all accounts the Obama administration is working behind the scenes and around the clock using private channels.  But public diplomacy is equally important in this situation and thus far the administration’s policy of public hedging is counter-productive.  The U.S. needs to recognize the political realities on the ground, ask Mubarak to step down, and demand new fair elections.  This is not a question of “being on the right side of history” in the traditional sense.  Democracy, unfortunately, does not always triumph as the Green Revolution in Iran proved in 2009.  In Egypt however, democratic forces will triumph, so it makes no sense for the U.S. to continue to back a losing horse.  By refusing to openly side with the protesters in the street, we risk having the democrats turn against us and reduce the probability that the next government will be more amenable to our interests.

There are two risks to publicly supporting the democrats, which I will briefly outline, neither of which is compelling.  First, some argue that public pronouncements will impede our ability to manage the situation.  This argument seems to fall under myth #1.  The U.S. cannot dictate events in Cairo; a bold statement cannot undermine a power the U.S. does not have to begin with.  The second argument is that by “pulling the rug” out from under Mubarak, we send a message to other autocrats that our support is unreliable.  I don’t see this as that big a problem.  Our support for autocrats should not be unconditional.  Sending a message that we look out for our own interests (see myth # 2) and will back democratic forces if they look like they have a chance of succeeding (see myth #3) seems entirely reasonable.  A public statement in support of free elections does not dramatically change the strategic calculation of our other allies in the war on terror or the defense of Israel and it might even encourage some of our less savory “friends” to preemptively begin reforms.  For all of these reasons, and to re-establish our moral authority, the U.S. needs to take a bold public stand for democracy in Egypt.

One thought on “U.S. Foreign Policy and Egypt: Myths and Realities

  1. Alfred Neuman February 2, 2011 / 11:34 PM

    Excellent piece–knowledgeable, informative, and balanced.

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