In Arab Spring, Foreign Militaries Make Unreliable Partners

United States should be wary about militaries leading countries after revolutions.

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Earlier this month in The Nation, blogger Robert Dreyfuss contributed to the magazine's superb meditation on the Arab Awakening with a look at how the Obama White House responded to the popular revolt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. As opposition to Mubarak reached its crescendo in February, according to Dreyfuss, senior White House aides frantically urged military leaders in Cairo to relieve themselves of him.

"Contrary to the widely held view that U.S. officials and Egypt's generals were closely coordinating actions," Dreyfuss writes, "at the height of the crisis there was palpable fear in Washington that Egypt's army ... might carry out a massacre."

In the end, the White House was able to leverage its influence over the Egyptian officer corps and Mubarak was ousted peacefully. As Dreyfuss points out, however, the administration seems disturbingly comfortable with the preponderance of power enjoyed by the military in the interim government it leads. "We seem to be clinging to our relationship with the military," the Arabist and former U.S. ambassador Chas Freeman told Dreyfuss. "We're stuck in the old rut."

[See an opinion slide show of 5 ways Arab governments resist democracy.]

It's worth examining the costs and consequences of Washington's reflexive outreach to foreign militaries, which has proliferated at a Malthusian rate over the last ten years. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Pentagon has nurtured close ties with military leaders globally with an emphasis on the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. In theory at least, this makes sense. When pursuing terrorists, local security forces can provide actionable intelligence as well as effective proxy forces, and there is evidence that these military-to-military relations have generated some positive results.

Unfortunately, there is an equally compelling case against such engagement. At a time when the line between military and intelligence operations are increasingly blurred, it may be argued that the Pentagon's collusion with foreign security forces is the touchstone for every manner of extrajudicial conduct, including the discredited practice of "rendering" terrorist suspects to authoritarian states for the kind of forceful line of inquiry that was once opposed in this country on both moral and practical grounds. (For the latest informed testimony against the use of torture as an interrogation tactic, see The Black Banner: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, a recently released book by former FBI agent Ali H. Soufan.)

[See a roundup of editorial cartoons about the mideast uprisings.]

The notion that partnering with sometimes odious regimes yields lucrative human intelligence was seriously undermined by the discovery of Osama bin Laden earlier this year living comfortably under the noses of the Pentagon's Pakistani counterparts. At the same time, documents unearthed in Libya that suggest close links between U. S. and British intelligence forces with that country's recently deposed dictator, Muammar Qadhafi illustrate how easily today's Partner Against Terror can become tomorrow's unruly thug. If the Arab Awakening has taught us anything, it's that the indulgence of autocrats by larger powers leaves a searing impression on their subject peoples that only deepens once the offending regime is evicted.

Nowhere is that more true than in Egypt. While soldiers refused to fire on the people, any success the Pentagon has had in grafting the values of a professional military onto its Egyptian counterpart are vastly overstated. Many of the hundreds of Egyptian flag officers who have cycled through American military academies over the years are the same ones who control vast shares of the country's economy, from textile mills to luxury hotels. As the January rebellion stretched into February, the armored personnel carriers and battle tanks that deployed throughout the streets of Egypt's major cities were gifts from Washington, which subsidized Mubarak's armies with some $1.5 billion in annual military assistance, the source of a corrupt patronage system. The extravagance with which Egypt's generals live even in the post-Mubarak era is not lost on the average Egyptian, nor is the military's refusal to concede its control over much of the economy.

[Read: Don't Misread Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood]

As the epicenter of the Arab world's politics and culture, Egypt matters. The militarization of America's relations with Cairo helped stoke resentment of Mubarak and now that he's gone, U.S. influence over Egypt and its neighbors has all but evaporated. If nothing else, the events of the last ten years reflected upon so intensely during last week's 9/11 commemorations should have revealed the limits of the kind of militarism that has become the defining feature of American relations abroad.

  • See photos of protests in Egypt.
  • See a roundup of editorial cartoons about the mideast uprisings.
  • See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.