Do you still think the possibility of regional transformation remote? I’d say by definition the fall of Mubarak means massive regional transformation, and at this point it seems to me–and most observers, I think–more likely than not. ~Claire Berlinski

I appreciate the lengthy response to my earlier post. The disagreement centers on the expectation of Mubarak’s fall. For what it’s worth, I don’t think this is likely at all, which makes this one of the few times that I agree with the Netanyahu government about something. It also centers on what seemed to me to be an unrealistic hope that the U.S. could lend support to Egyptian liberal democrats without also lending support to the Muslim Brotherhood. I would agree that there is another alternative besides Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood, namely a new form of military “emergency” rule that would be no less repressive and perhaps even more hardened against political reform in the future. From what I have been seeing and reading, many observers are overstating the significance of the protests and the protesters’ ability to overthrow the government. We saw much the same thing in the summer of 2009 in Iran, and we heard the same demands that the administration take the side of the Green movement. Granted, Iran is not Egypt, and the U.S. has much more leverage in Egypt, but the call to “do something” is the same and it seems just as misguided now as it did then.

As for a U.S. response involving withdrawal of aid, it may be that we don’t disagree as much as I thought. Here we probably differ only about what would trigger the loss of aid. From the last post, Claire, it seemed as if you were willing to pull all aid or even impose sanctions if Mubarak’s security forces so much as roughed up another protester. Perhaps I misunderstood. What I was trying to say is that there is a line of unacceptable use of force that the U.S. shouldn’t tolerate. If Mubarak’s forces committed atrocities on the scale of something like Andijan in Uzbekistan, Washington would have to suspend aid.

Up to that point, it makes no sense to drop all support for an allied government. It’s not as if we can pretend that our government hasn’t been implicated in its activities for all these years. If an alliance with Egypt has genuine strategic importance for the U.S. it doesn’t make sense why our government would try to help undermine it in a crisis. One reason that it makes no sense is that Mubarak, his party, and his military backers most likely aren’t going anywhere. Even if Mubarak were to step aside personally, which I doubt, the regime apparatus behind him isn’t going to give up its power.

Maybe the U.S. could do without the Egyptian alliance. No matter how it turns out, openly siding with the protesters against the government will mean that the Egyptian alliance as we have known it will be dead or severely damaged. That has to be considered in connection with its effects on other U.S. allies and interests in the region. I am not as concerned with containing and checking Iranian influence as many Americans are, but overthrowing the current regime in Egypt will make it more difficult for Egypt to contribute to the goal of containing Iranian influence. Trying and failing to overthrow the regime will make Egypt look for other, more reliable patrons (it has done so before), and there are other major powers that wouldn’t mind making Egypt into a client state. They aren’t going to have any concerns about how Mubarak and his successors govern the place, and they probably aren’t going to be concerned about growing Iranian influence.

If the government is overthrown, it will probably have a good effect on reducing the suffering of the people in Gaza by ending the Egyptian part of the blockade, but it would make it easier for Hamas to operate. If the U.S. helps bring the regime down, the message will be that the U.S. pulled the plug on one of the only two Arab states to make peace with Israel. What are the odds that any other Arab state is going to see the benefits of formally recognizing Israel after that? As for Egypt itself, the fall of the regime could unleash terrible religious violence. The Christians of Iraq have already paid a terrible price as a result of the “liberation” of their country. The Copts and other Christians are at risk of facing similar treatment.

Critics of the Obama administration have routinely accused him of undermining or “selling out” allies and encouraging U.S. rivals. These charges have been baseless, but now it seems that unless Obama actively undermines Mubarak his critics are arguing that he will have erred horribly. If I understand your position, you are calling for the administration to abandon an allied government on the chance that a popular movement is going to overthrow it anyway. My view is that this greatly exaggerates the power of the protests, it underestimates the staying power of the current regime and its ruler, and it doesn’t take into account any of the consequences of success (overthrowing the regime) or failure (trying and failing to overthrow the regime).

P.S. The comparison with Poland is not as useful as it might seem. Washington has never had difficulty denouncing the actions of governments allied with major rivals. When the U.S. is the patron, as the USSR was for the Polish government at the time, Washington has understandably been less insistent on public denunciation and sanctions. It is also true that the U.S. helped the political transitions in South Korea, Chile and the Philippines in the 1980s, but the Reagan administration did so only when there was no perceived danger of creating an opening for communists and Soviet influence. If we’re looking to Reagan for an idea of how to proceed, it seems to me that his administration would have continued to support Mubarak. One of Reagan’s chief criticisms of Carter’s administration was that his human rights activism had undermined the Shah. Stating the truth would be excellent, and part of the truth is that the U.S. has supported the miserable dictator Mubarak because our government concluded that his rule was preferable to the probable alternatives. That still appears to be true, and for the most part the argument to the contrary seems to be based on little more than the hope that it does not have to be true.

Update: Michael has been making many of the same points on the main blog:

Four years ago, during some of the headiest days of Bush’s “democracy agenda”, our own State Department officials in Cairo told me that truly liberal parties in Egypt were “interesting to talk to but totally insignificant.” The idea that there is some huge reserve of middle class support for liberal democracy is an untested fantasy.