Monday, February 7, 2011

Egypt: Amateur Hour For U.S. Policy

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By Barry Rubin

When the president of the United States talks like this there is something seriously wrong:

"What I want is a representative government in Egypt and I have confidence that if Egypt moves in an orderly transition process, that we'll have a government in Egypt that we can work with together as a partner."

This is a rather egocentric way to approach the world by an administration that supposedly is trying to get away from the “old” style of American leadership. “What I want…!” And why should Egypt do what he wants?

But the second part is even worse. It links “an orderly transition process” with “a government in Egypt that we can work with together as a partner.” Let’s look at this closely because I think it does show us the essence of U.S. policy toward Egypt.

Why should the orderliness of the process inevitably produce a good result for U.S. interests? There are assumptions here that have nothing to do with the real Middle East:

--The Egyptian people could not possibly elect an anti-American, radical regime.

Why not? Why can’t a fair election produce an extremist or Islamist or anti-American government? The assumption here is that the “people” can never be radical or hostile to the United States (or maybe, what he means, is that it is impossible Egyptians wouldn’t like him and give him what he wants.)

In fact, knowing Egyptian history, world view, who is well organized, what ideas are likely to appeal to the masses, and politics the Egyptian people could not possibly elect a pro-American, moderate regime.

--Or, conversely, any government resulting from an orderly transition must be one that U.S. policy will work with because America will offer partnership in exchange for nothing at all. Obama said that all the Muslim Brotherhood need do is to eschew violence (why use violence if they are winning anyway) and support democratic goals (what does that mean?). So no matter how subversive of U.S. goals, interests, and allies the new Egyptian government is, Washington will pretend that it is a partner.

Obama seems to believe that the process inevitably produces the result he desires. This shows a lack of seriousness and experience to say the least.

Oh, and by the way, after the president repeatedly called for Mubarak's instant departure someone in Washington actually read Egypt's constitution and discovered that if he steps down right now there must be elections within 60 days. Maybe the idea that Mubarak will step down in September after new elections--giving time for organizing parties--might not be a bad idea.

Here are some interesting things to think about:

--The United States is guarantor of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. If Egypt either formally abrogates the treaty or merely does so in practice, how would the United States respond, given the much higher degree of threat faced by Israel?

--The United States gives almost $2 billion a year in aid to Egypt. Will the United States now fund classrooms, for example, which teach that America is the enemy of Muslims, Arabs, and Egyptians? That Jews are evil and inferior? That every Egyptian Muslim has the duty of engaging in jihad?

--The United States provides Egypt advanced military equipment. Will it continue to do so if Egypt is once again an enemy of Israel, and supplies weapons to Hamas.

And if those issues seem distant, here is Muhammad ElBaradei, the apparent U.S. candidate for president of Egypt, renouncing the peace treaty in an interview with Der Spiegel:

“Something the Israelis also need to grasp is that it's impossible to make peace with a single man [Mubarak]. At the moment, they have a peace treaty with Mubarak, but not one with the Egyptian people.”

He has just said that there is no binding peace treaty and if the agreement is with a single man, when that man leaves office there is no agreement. He doesn’t have to abrogate the treaty because he says that it doesn’t exist at all. I can only assume that U.S. diplomats have not been instructed to tell ElBaradei that if he doesn’t change his view something bad will happen to his political ambitions.

You know, please forgive me if I put this in a really big font and put it in bold so it sears itself onto that screen behind your foreheads. It will make me feel better. Thanks:

Might this be a problem?

As an historian I feel obligated to say that the treaty actually was not made with Mubarak but his predecessor, Anwar al-Sadat, which shows that neither the passage of decades nor the acceptance of the deal by two Egyptian presidents has any effect on institutionalizing or legitimizing it.

It seems that whenever Israel makes an agreement, gives up territory, and takes risks, the other side finds some reason—once it has swallowed the concessions—to say that the deal doesn’t count.

Can you imagine Israel agreeing to a Palestinian state and yielding more territory with the prospect of being told after some years that the treaty was only an agreement with a single man, Mahmoud Abbas?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The GLORIA Center's site is and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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