However things turn out in Egypt, the nascent revolution that played out over the past few weeks is a reminder of something that should have been obvious all along: The political status quo in the Middle East is not sustainable and won't be sustained.
Egypt, after all, is hardly the only country in the region with an unpopular authoritarian government aligned with and supported by the United States. Nor is it the only state in which American policy-makers fear that the practical alternative to the current leadership is Islamists likely to be unsympathetic to American geopolitical goals. That's Egypt, yes. But it's also Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the West Bank, and the small Persian Gulf states. The first problem with the U.S.' foreign-policy approach with these states is that you can't just count on unpopular regimes staying in power forever. And the second problem is that the longer the U.S. government stays in bed with kleptocrats, the more severe popular discontent against the United States becomes. It's an untenable and counterproductive posture, and obviously so.
Indeed, it's so problematic that the George W. Bush administration repudiated it loudly and frequently. But because the approach is so deeply ingrained in American foreign policy, nothing actually changed. Bush delivered a number of insightful lines in speeches in which he said things like "the calm we saw in the Middle East was only a mirage" and "years of pursuing stability to promote peace had left us with neither." That's all true, but when Bush followed it up with the claim that "so we changed our policies, and committed America's influence in the world to advancing freedom and democracy as the great alternatives to repression and radicalism" he was just talking nonsense. His administration didn't change policy toward Egypt or Jordan or Saudi Arabia or any of America's other problematic allies. He invaded Iraq.
In that light, it's interesting that, confronted with the crisis in Egypt, the Obama administration initially appeared paralyzed. A divide opened up between the most senior officials at the Departments of State and Defense and lower-level officials with longer and deeper ties to the president. It's impossible to know exactly what caused the split, but the nature of the divide is suggestive.
By working for merely gradual political change in Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates certainly reflected the cautious viewpoints of the large bureaucracies they oversee. By contrast, the views of Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power on the National Security Council , who've never worked in government previously, seem to me to reflect common sense; they pressed for rapid and meaningful political change. According to the LA Times, aides were willing to "acknowledge privately" that this split had "produced a mixed message." Ultimately, events on the ground in Egypt made the choice.
The underlying disagreement between key players in the administration presumably hasn't vanished, however. It will continue to be relevant in future policy crises and, indeed, even in Egypt as the political transition proceeds. When it comes to many countries in the Middle East, the foreign-policy debate is often characterized as a battle between those who have an "idealistic" distaste for despots and those who weigh the "national interest" we have in keeping compliant regimes in place more heavily. But the institutional bases of the split should be a reminder that the definition of "interest" is problematic. Subsidized corn production is in the interest of politically influential corn growers, which is why we do it, but it doesn't actually serve the national interest. Similarly, the current relationships with "moderate" Arab regimes have a kind of interest-group politics to them. The military gets bases, customers for American defense contractors, training responsibilities, and the political conceit that it has a key role to play in a "war on terror." Diplomats, on the other hand, have specialized expertise in managing the difficulties that result.
But the overall strategy is obsolete, a relic of superpower competition with the Soviet Union. The fear was that hypothetical Communist-aligned Gulf states might team up with the oil-rich USSR to squeeze the West into submission. Under those circumstances, we needed to cooperate with anyone willing to cooperate with us.
Whatever one thinks of that worry, it's plainly inapplicable today and will only become less reasonable over time as Saudi Arabia runs out of oil. The rationale has shifted to the idea that America needs to keep the region stable to guard against undesirable interruptions in the supply of various goods and price fluctuations. It's unclear that we're actually achieving this, but even if we are, our approach is a mighty wasteful and roundabout way of insulating ourselves from oil-price shocks. The government could subsidize electric cars, build subways, or even just stockpile gasoline all without the negative impact that comes from aligning ourselves with unpopular dictators.
And unlike domestic developments in Egypt and other Arab states, our own policies are something we really have control over. The misguided nature of the current approach is something that attracts sporadic attention, and then tends to drift off the agenda. But the currents of discontent in the region will continue even as cable news gets bored with Egypt. If we're smart, this time we won't forget that there's no time like the present to get on the right side of history.
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