The U.S. risks ostracizing a regime that may yet hold on to power, while making common cause with an opposition that includes U.S. enemies.
Is there a coherent explanation for the bizarre muddle that is the Obama administration’s policy toward Egypt?
The charitable view is that the administration is deliberately speaking out of both sides of its mouth—sometimes hostile, sometimes conciliatory to Hosni Mubarak—because it’s hedging its bets about the outcome of the unrest. Frank Wisner, the administration’s handpicked envoy to Cairo, told a security conference here that “President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical—it’s his opportunity to write his own legacy.” Yet Hillary Clinton declared at the same conference that democratic reform was a “strategic necessity” and that it was time for Mr. Mubarak to let his vice president take matters in hand.
The alternative explanation is that the administration has no idea what it’s doing. Considering that Mrs. Clinton has now endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in negotiations with the regime, I find myself leaning toward the uncharitable view.
So what should the administration do now? Here’s a simple exercise:
1) Identify worst-case scenarios and set priorities. The worst outcome for the U.S. would be an Egypt led by the Muslim Brotherhood. The next-worst outcome is that the current regime survives by returning to its Nasserist roots as a secular but reactionary regime—populist in its economic policies, hostile to the U.S. and Israel, potentially a client of China, and in the market for a nuclear arsenal. Also conceivable is that the regime and the Brotherhood strike a devil’s bargain and rule in condominium.
The U.S. should work toward a more democratic future for Egypt. But that should not be the primary goal of U.S. policy. What’s paramount is to ensure that worst-case outcomes don’t come to pass.
2) Define a position. So far, the administration’s principles, as Mrs. Clinton describes them, are to encourage “an orderly, expeditious transition,” free of violence and culminating in “free and fair elections.”
This won’t do. It’s fine for the U.S. to support a process or pledge its support for the “choice of the Egyptian people.” But we simply cannot be indifferent to the result of that choice. When Mrs. Clinton speaks of a transition, somebody needs to ask: transition to what? One plausible answer is an Egypt that respects individual rights, private property, the rule of law, and its international obligations.
3) Cultivate the right friends. For two years, the administration cultivated Mr. Mubarak at the expense of Egypt’s genuine liberals, who were treated as nuisances. When parliamentary elections were rigged late last year, Mr. Obama raised no objection.
Now the administration is making the opposite mistake, abruptly ostracizing a regime that may yet hold on to power, while making common cause with an opposition that contains no shortage of U.S. enemies.
The U.S. doesn’t have many sincere friends in Egypt, which is all the more reason that it needs to maintain the ones it does.
Specifically, the administration ought to understand and respect the interests of an army without which there can be no reform or democracy. It could speak up for the Egyptian technocrats, particularly the recently fired Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, who was probably Egypt’s most competent civilian leader and is now being scapegoated by Mr. Mubarak. It needs to be outspoken on behalf of genuine dissidents like Kareem Amer, a blogger who spent four years in jail for “insulting Islam” and “insulting Mubarak” and has recently gone missing.
4) Understand the possibilities of the present. Nobody wants Egypt to return to the status quo ante. But the last thing the U.S. should want on the streets of Cairo is a revolution. And on current trends, there isn’t going to be one: The protests are getting smaller, life is returning to normal, and the regime, as I predicted last week, has “engaged” the opposition in what will prove to be an endless negotiation. The real question is whether what comes next in Egypt is reaction or reform.
5) “Assist and insist.” The Obama administration has an opportunity to tilt Egypt toward reform, and even commit a bit of bipartisanship in the process.
“We need to be more assisting but also more insisting,” suggested John McCain at the security conference, by linking benefits like foreign aid, technical assistance and market access to a genuine process of reform and transition. The senator called it “a new compact with our undemocratic partners,” and it certainly beats the old formula of paying off Mr. Mubarak year after year for ever-diminishing returns.
6) Practice the art of the possible. Mrs. Clinton is right that democracy is a strategic necessity, at least in the long run. Democracy Now is another story.
The world has long experience with democratic transitions. Few of them are swift. Many of them fail. Some end tragically.
Egyptians are now casting about for decent role models for such a transition. One is Turkey, where for decades the army maintained its prerogatives but allowed civilian governments considerable leeway. Another is Mexico, which gave its presidents near-dictatorial powers but limited them to six-year terms.
Would Egyptians be ill-served if they were to pursue some version of those models? Probably not. Would the U.S. be well-served if they did? Given the realistic alternatives, it surely would.
Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal