By Aaron David Miller
Foreign Policy Magazine
If we’re lucky this time around, we’ll avoid the who-lost-Egypt debate. Hosni Mubarak’s decision to step down has pre-empted a catastrophic crisis for Egypt and for American interests. We may not be adept at manipulating Middle Eastern politics; but we’re sure experts at beating ourselves up.
Commentators and analysts have argued forcefully that Barack Obama’s administration failed to anticipate the current crisis, blew an opportunity by failing to push Mubarak to make significant reforms during the early days of the upheaval, and risked being on the wrong side of history by not being assertive in trying to force Mubarak’s removal. But the administration was smart to keep its distance from this crisis.
If the last eight years in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran — and the previous 800 years in the Middle East — demonstrate anything, it is that great powers cannot micromanage the affairs of small tribes. And when they try, they almost always fare badly.
There is much to quibble with in the administration’s approach — too many daily political weather reports about the current situation in Cairo, not enough initial coordination about what the administration should say, and too many presidential statements.
But on balance, the administration has played a bad hand pretty well. The cards the president were dealt were largely beyond his control. Hammering him now completely ignores the reality that U.S. policy made its bed in Egypt decades ago, and now the administration — forced to sleep in it as it confronts the current crisis — has few good options.
For decades, the United States cut a devil’s bargain with a number of Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes. And let’s be clear here, Hosni Mubarak isn’t Saddam Hussein: He’s not a sociopath or a mass murderer. Indeed, until last month, I guarantee you, any number of U.S. officials, including the president and the secretary of state, chummed it up with him in Washington and Cairo.
The bargain the United States cut was quite simple: In exchange for helping it carry out what it believed to be sound American policies on peace and war, it gave Mubarak, the monarchs of Jordan, the Saudis, and even Saddam Hussein (for a brief period during the 1980s) a pass on domestic governance.
The United States issued annual human rights reports for these countries, which documented all kinds of abuses; Congress complained from time to time; and for a brief period under George W. Bush’s second administration the country actually took freedom and human rights more seriously. But in the end, the basic bargain endured. That bargain didn’t secure peace, stability, or security — just look around the neighborhood. But it did help manage a broken, dysfunctional, and angry region in which America had interests.
Did it prove shortsighted? Sure. But could a better bargain have been struck, given the mindsets of U.S. policymakers dealing first with the Cold War and then with the hot wars after 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq, and against al Qaeda when America really needed the support of authoritarian Arab regimes? I doubt it.
Bush took his freedom agenda seriously. But he never had the leverage, nor frankly the will, to force real change — in large part because he needed Arab support for the war against terror and in Iraq.
And the contract with the Arab world’s dictators was a bipartisan one. When I worked at the State Department and would travel with secretaries James Baker, Warren Christopher, and Madeleine Albright, we always stopped in Cairo first to consult with Mubarak and, frankly, to enjoy his company. We looked at him as a friend.
We need to get a grip and realize one thing: The United States may not be a potted plant, but it does not and never has controlled the world. There is ample and public evidence of this, from America’s struggle to emerge from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to its failure so far to stop the Iranian mullahcracy from repressing its own people, let alone acquiring a nuclear weapon. In June 2009, when the Green Movement was fighting for its life in the streets of Tehran, the Obama administration didn’t call on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to step down or surrender power. Indeed, it left ample room to allow for possible engagement with him.
America’s record in directing the internal affairs of other countries isn’t great. Yes, it rebuilt Europe and Japan in the post-World War II period and played a key role in the Balkans. And Iraq is a much improved place. But the story there is not over, and the price the United States paid was a terrible one.
Surrounded by nonpredatory neighbors to its north and south, and fish to its east and west, America has never really understood the rest of the world, nor the existential and political realities that small powers are forced to confront.
Had Obama tried to hammer Mubarak to reform Egypt’s political system after his 2009 speech in Cairo, he would have had no more success than his predecessor. The devil’s bargain would have assured that. The Egyptians have driven their own freedom express. Indeed, from the opposition’s standpoint, the United States seemed almost irrelevant to the story.
The devil’s bargain haunts America still. The country’s limited policy options reflected that fact and created a terrible conundrum for the administration. It clearly wanted Mubarak gone but wouldn’t say so explicitly out of fear of being accused of personalizing its policy, emboldening the opposition and risking a bloody confrontation with the regime, and alienating other Arab autocrats and Israel.
The United States may have been tempted to cut or withhold military assistance, particularly if there had been massive violence, but it really didn’t want to do that, either, out of fear of losing influence with the military — the one constituency with which it will have to deal in the post-Mubarak Egypt. And America wanted to support the opposition — as the president’s strong statement Thursday, Feb. 10, did; but it alienated them too because it couldn’t or wouldn’t meet their demands for Mubarak’s ouster.
And so the White House waited, watched, danced, and shuffled — and probably talked too much.
But such are the travails of a great power having to live in the bed that it has made. And the story of contradictions in U.S. policy and America’s conundrums are far from over. The real challenge the United States will face in the post-Mubarak era is that Egypt has been, and is now still, a praetorian state where the military holds tremendous power. And the United States has an interest in maintaining close ties with that military as well as encouraging political reform. Therein lies the next conundrum. With great apologies to W.B. Yeats: I wonder what new bargain slouches toward Bethlehem, waiting to be born?
Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former advisor to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. His forthcoming book is Can America Have Another Great President?.
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