Friday, February 4, 2011

Briefly, What Could the U.S. Government Have Done in Egypt?

By Barry Rubin

I'm not judging right now between these alternatives but want to make clear that many alternatives did exist.

1. The U.S. government could have waited to assess the situation rather than leap in immediately. Avoiding involvement altogether was a serious option, retaining the option to act if the conflict went on a long time or seemed to spiral toward civil war. During many previous cases of internal unrest in allied Arab states--though, of course, this was larger--the United States has not previously intervened without being asked to do so. And in cases where hostile states used massive repression, it remained passive.

2. It could have expressed support for the Mubarak government while urging it to ease conditions. Private pressure in the context of support would have been more effective. The easing of repression, economic benefits, and other steps to ensure fair elections might have been taken with U.S. encouragement. Working with members of the leadership to ensure the retirement of an 82-year-old president is more likely to succeed than threatening the position of all regime officials causing them to circle the wagons and hang tough.

3. By staying "neutral" the U.S. government could have given the Mubarak government an incentive to be flexible since it would hope to retain, perhaps even increase, U.S. support. This approach could also have made the opposition more cautious since it wanted to gain U.S. support and felt that it had less leverage.

4. But by choosing the side of the opposition publicly, it threw away its leverage. Why should the Egyptian government listen to it and why should the opposition stop short of total victory? When Mubarak said that Obama does not understand Egyptian culture, in part he meant that by taking sides the U.S. government further enflamed the crisis. One could argue that the revolt would have inevitably triumphed (though the word "inevitably" is usually a mistake in such circumstances) but as long as Mubarak has support of the army there is no way the opposition could win.

5. By publicly treating the Egyptian government in an insulting way, the U.S. government sent bad signals to every ally. They could only conclude that not only might Washington treat them the same way but that it was not a reliable protector against enemies foreign and domestic.

6. By unilaterally saying it would accept the Muslim Brotherhood in government--on the basis of very flimsy and unenforcable conditions--the U.S. government raised the status of the Brotherhood and, again, threw away leverage. It could have simply remained silent.

7. By expressing excessive optimism that everything would be all right, that threats were low or nonexistent, that the Brotherhood was not dangerous, and so on, the government misled public opinion and lulled itself into a false sense of security.  It was then caught by surprise as Mubarak rejected Obama's "orders." 

I'd be happy to add more or refine these points based on readers' suggestions. I have also prepared a longer, more detailed article on this subject to publish soon.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.