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Why Egypt Isn’t Easy

I have sympathy for the argument that we should distance ourselves materially from the Egyptian regime, and very little regard for the argument that we should effectively “go to war” with the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s particularly bizarre to contemplate us simultaneously backing Egypt’s repression of the Brotherhood and backing a substantially-Islamist insurgency in Syria. If nothing else, the fact that we can’t decide whether or not to continue to support Egypt’s military as it engages in violent repression of the opposition should make it abundantly clear that we should not support the violent overthrow of the Syrian government.

And I’ve written in the past that our influence in Egypt is going to wane inevitably. When Mubarak was being eased out, I said that the best-case scenario involved Egypt becoming far less-tractable and less useful as an American ally. Our goal, I said, ought to be to try to make the transition from one regime to another as smooth as possible. And I said that a smooth transition might well not be possible. It has proved not to be.

But I don’t think that makes the call on Egypt now an easy one. America already has had the experience multiple times of cutting off clients who have crossed a red line of one sort or another. For example, we abandoned the Shah when he had plainly lost the support of his people. This did not win us any goodwill once the Iranian revolution brought to power a profoundly anti-American regime – because the Iranians had not forgotten America’s longstanding support of the Shah, and because the Ayatollahs had their own reasons for setting themselves up in opposition to America.

For another example, in response to Pakistan’s escalating program of nuclear weapons acquisition – and, not incidentally, in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union – beginning in 1990 the United States increasingly distanced itself from Pakistan. Over the course of the next decade, Pakistan still developed a nuclear arsenal, a generation of Pakistani officers grew up without relationships with the United States, and Pakistan became deeply involved in the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. We all know what happened next.

I can think of three good arguments, broadly speaking, for cutting off aid.

The first is the ethical one. American law requires cutting off aid because of the coup; to avoid that, we’ve delayed so far acknowledging the obvious. Moreover, the Egyptian military is engaged in brutal repression of the opposition. Cutting off aid would make it clear that we do not condone and will not support that kind of repression. It will, to some extent, keep our hands clean.

But what is the practical value of those clean hands? We will not win any good will from the Muslim Brotherhood, who already know that we were silently pleased with their removal from power, and who are ideologically disposed to be our opponents in any event. Nor will we earn any good will from governments in the region who will see this as more evidence of our fecklessness (many of them are already appalled at our willingness – correct, in my view – to abandon Mubarak).

And then there’s the question of whether the coup will succeed in the medium term. If it does, what are the odds that we will keep it at arms-length? And if we re-embrace a military regime after a decent interval, what, from an ethical perspective, will we have achieved by making a show of distance?

A second argument is narrowly tactical. From this perspective, our goal should be maximizing our influence over whatever regime consolidates power in Cairo. By refusing forthrightly to censure the plotters of the coup, we have proven ourselves feckless in support of democracy and encouraged the military to believe that we need them more than they need us. We need to redress that imbalance. A cutoff of aid could quickly produce an agreement to hold new elections. Then aid could be restored and we can hope that the opposition will be chastened – or will boycott the election – resulting in a regime that we can more comfortably support. Even if that regime winds up fighting an increasingly radical opposition, it will have more legitimacy and America will have more influence than would be the case if we simply sat back and let happen whatever will happen.

There are two problems with this view. First, if America didn’t cut off aid when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, and doesn’t cut off aid after they were deposed in a coup, then plausibly we’re sending a message that we don’t much care about the character of the Egyptian regime. We care about the treaty with Israel, our rights in the canal – in general, how Egypt comports itself internationally. By contrast, if we cut off aid, and then restore it after some kind of fig-leaf elections are held, we are more clearly enmeshing ourselves in Egypt’s internal affairs than if we held ourselves aloof.

Second, what if it doesn’t work? What if the Egyptian regime, rather than complying with American wishes, defies America and wraps itself in the flag? Wouldn’t that, actually, be the best strategy of all for a regime aiming to survive in Egypt’s current environment? The military, previously widely-reviled, is now viewed more favorably by that segment of the Egyptian population that opposed Mubarak but was appalled by the Morsi government. Wouldn’t a burst of nationalist fervor help it consolidate public support?

A third argument is broadly strategic, and, in contradiction to the tactical perspective, aims at fundamentally changing America’s relationship with Egypt, regardless of the end-game. The goal, in this view, should be cooler, more distant relations, on the grounds that our interests are not well-aligned and that our confidence in the stability of any Egyptian partner is poor.

This view makes a great deal of sense if either of two things are true: if America is interested generally in reducing our involvement in regional affairs, or if Egypt doesn’t much matter anymore for America’s regional position.

I find the second contention hard to defend. If the situation in Egypt deteriorates into something resembling Syria, that would have significant implications for American interests. America is already concerned about Egypt losing effective control over some of its territory, and the rise of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the vacuum. How much more concerned would we be if we started to fear for the security of the Suez Canal? On a relative basis, Egypt is much less-influential than it was fifty years ago. On an absolute basis, though, it’s a much, much bigger country. If we decide that Egypt doesn’t much matter to us, I think we can safely say that we’ve decided that the Middle East doesn’t much matter to us.

Which it well might not. But I am not shocked that the American government is reluctant to decide on the fly and under the pressure of rapidly-changing circumstances in one country to significantly reorder its priorities in this part of the world.

Again, to be clear, I think there’s a good case to be made for taking the opportunity to reduce our exposure to Egypt. But we shouldn’t overestimate the likely benefits of such an approach, and there’s a tactical case to be made for a much less-decisive course of action aimed at muddling through.

Meanwhile, if we want to change our strategy in the Middle East, the place to begin is our confrontational policy vis-a-vis Iran – and we should do it deliberately and calmly. Our approach to Egypt is inevitably going to be tactical, with a goal of preserving what influence we can and promoting stability as best we are able. And from a tactical perspective, all our options look pretty poor.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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