Egypt-US Relations: The Uncomfortable Hypothetical


egypt dove freedom.jpgWhen big shifts occur in the world, like the successful revolution (thus far) in Egypt, Americans like to race toward ideological frames that fit the moment and which should be applied to every nation in a similar circumstance, perhaps to Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, even Saudi Arabia.
Politico‘s Ben Smith has a good piece of analysis on what appears to him as an “Obama Freedom Agenda” that has been constructed from the themes of Obama’s earlier calls for principle-driven global framework, as in his famous Cairo remarks, and made up on the fly. Others like National Public Radio’s Ari Shapiro are working on stories about the administration surfing a “freedom wave.” Helene Cooper and Mark Landler have put forward a thesis that Obama’s progressive realist team — particularly Denis McDonough and Ben Rhodes — knocked back Hillary Clinton’s acolytes in a struggle over what the soul of US foreign policy should be, replaying their tensions during the Democratic Party primary race.
While I think that there is a solid realist track for having supported the protesters in the street against the Mubarak franchise (and I did support them), an uncomfortable hypothetical to consider is what US policy should be if Mubarak had cracked down and he and his son, Gamal Mubarak, had essentially prevailed.
The answer is that after a period of time of icy relations and distance, America and the Egyptian political order would have had to start dealing with each other again. There are too many other issues that matter to the United States to leave Egypt walled off from the US or permanently on the outs.
Frankly, I think that the high level of engagement between the US and the rest of the world with Egypt is what kept Mubarak from using the full force of the state against the protesters — and that rather than keeping them at arm’s length and beyond, nations like Iran, Syria, Cuba and the like ought to be ones that we seriously engage and try to get thoroughfares of exchange and people to people contact as this could in some cases be a constraint on some forms of violence against their citizens.
After Tiananmen, Brent Scowcroft made the secret trip to China during the George H.W. Bush administration to nudge US-China contacts back in a generally constructive direction. The people power effort inside China had failed, but the US — while I think largely supportive and hopeful of what China’s youth were trying to achieve — needed to make sure that America’s interests on other fronts were going to be secure.
I agree with this approach — one that understands and appreciates the importance of self-determination and citizen empowerment — but that also doesn’t undermine the fundamental national security interests of the US.
Thus, if Mubarak and his son had prevailed — the likelihood is that the US would have had to find a way back to engaging with that Egypt as uncomfortable as that would have been.
— Steve Clemons