Wednesday, February 2, 2011

You Can't Get There From Here

We'v been spending a good bit of time discussing the current events in Egypt. Jim addresses the specifics of the apparent dissonance between our domestic and foreign policies over the protests there in the preceding post; Jason over at "Armchair Generalist" goes even further, describing our Middle East policy as "broken".But I can't honestly see how the U.S. could have taken a different route than backing the strongmen who have ruled in Egypt since Nasser.

We're caught on the cleft stick of our own making because we want two things that, like matter and anti-matter, don't and can't exist together. We want to:

1) back Israel without serious question; we've been fairly supine on every question of Israeli internal defense. The Israelis make their decisions based on their own analyses, but we have been pretty muted when these analyses end up producing the punitive acts that Israel has used to defend itself from its Palestinian enemies. The cumulative effect is to make us look like Israel's complascent sugar daddy. While Israel is a nice little democracy this is really a luxury on our part, since Israel is strategically worthless, but Great Powers are allowed to have their luxuries and Israel is one of ours.

But we also want (and need):

2) at least some sort of passive neutrality from the Arab states, because they control the REAL geopolitical/strategic assets we need from the region; passage through Suez, petroleum, cooperation against the jihadis.

Genuinely "democratic" Arab states would be unlikely to help with #2 if we insisted that they come with us on #1. You can argue this until the end of forever - I personally think that the Arab states would be well off to get Egypt to absorb Gaza, Jordan the West Bank, accept a whopping cash payoff from the U.S./Israel and get the fuck on with life - but the reality is that to get an Egypt to Camp David you NEEDED a Mubarak (or a Sadat, whatever - a leader who had to be responsive to Abdul and Maryam Lunchpail would have risked his life doing it. Sadat did, and did, remember?).

So I don't see how the U.S. has any real options here. To get an "un-broke" policy you'd need to have different goals. So I think the thing here is that walloping the current U.S. leadership about Egypt is hammering on a symptom. The "disease" - the underlying malfunction that produces things like the current U.S. paralysis on Egypt - is that you can't really design a Middle East policy that gets to have both #1 and #2. And discussing the pros and cons - especially the cons - of #1 are completely and utterly off limits in Washington D.C.

It's worth noting that the fall of a U.S. backed dictator doesn't HAVE to be traumatic or disastrous for U.S. foreign policy. Sure, the post-Marcos Philippines closed Subic (Clark was unusable after Pinatubo, anyway) but in the long run the successor governments have been quite cooperative on many issues; the threat of domestic islamic rebels as well as the loom of the dragon to the west surely has a lot to do with that. Post-Pinochet Chile hasn't really been hostile, and post-Somoza-post-Ortega Nicaragua is relatively quiescent. The real notable outlier is the post-Shah Iran, but Egypt doesn't have anyone like the Ayatollah Khomeni to push it towards a violently islamic state.

So overall I suspect that post-Mubarak Egypt, though possibly not as passive on matters involving Israel, has as good a chance of being willing to cooperate with the U.S. to some extent as it does of becoming a rival. But it IS unlikely to cooperate on Israeli issues, and if the U.S. forces those issues and the Egyptian leaders - whoever they turn out to be - are forced to choose, a democratic Egypt would seem to be much less likely to follow the U.S. policy.

And it seems to me that there's no way to really do much about that.

(crossposted from MilPub)

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