Events in Egypt present the Obama administration with its most serious foreign policy crisis to date—serious because, unlike the other issues on the table, it is not likely to be resolved in the short term and could easily go in a way that runs counter to U.S. strategic and economic long-term interests.
Egypt is an important ally of the United States, one whose fidelity has been secured, year by year, by generous amounts of U.S. foreign aid. Beginning with the much lauded Camp David Accords of 1978 and 1979’s Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, the United States has bought peace in the Middle East, a peace that relies heavily on the stability of the Egyptian government. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Egypt protests.]
That stability is now threatened as never before. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who is no one’s idea of a democrat, finds his control over the state threatened by massive protests against his autocratic rule—protests that no one in the U.S. government seems to have any idea how to deal with.
The current crisis brings to mind, as the excellent Michael Ledeen pointed out in a column published Sunday, the events that brought down the Shah of Iran the same year Israel and Egypt signed their treaty.
There are few who would, today, defend the Shah, whose repressive regime was the target of many U.S. foreign policy liberals who rejected both the means through which he kept power and the Nixonian impetus to make him a force for stability in the region. Indeed there were many who had the Shah in mind when then-President Jimmy Carter famously and fatuously announced that “human rights” would be the cornerstone of his administration’s foreign policy. Yet who among us would say that Iran, the United States—or the world for that matter—is better off without an occupant of the Peacock throne in power in Tehran. [Read: Cutting Internet Won't Stop Egypt's Revolution.]
Obama is, because of events in Egypt, stuck between a rock and a hard place. If he backs Mubarak and he falls, then he incurs for the United States the lasting animosity of whatever government takes his place. If he backs the protesters and Mubarak survives, then he shows the United States to be a feckless ally of democratic movements—if that is indeed what this is—in the place of autocracy friendly to the United States. And if he backs the protesters and Mubarak is ousted, only to be replaced by an Islamic theocracy on the order of Iran, then he becomes the president “who lost Egypt” and who creates lasting problems for the United States and the western world, not to mention our allies in Tel Aviv. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
The president, were he smart, would be on the phone to his predecessors seeking their advice and should form an ad hoc “blue ribbon commission”—headed by someone with deep experience in the region, like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger or former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, currently an adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton—to formulate strategies to deal with all the possible options and outcomes, perhaps modeled on the fabled “EXCOMM” that advised President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is not at all clear that Obama and his foreign policy team have “the chops” to deal with the uncertainty and challenges the crisis in Egypt poses for the United States. The people in charge at Foggy Bottom and within the White House are not “the first team” when it comes to serious crises, no disrespect intended, and he needs to bring in help. The stakes are that high.