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Egypt has not yet succumbed to all-out civil war, as Syria has, but it’s getting close. So are Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Somalia. Tensions are more than simmering in Nigeria, Mali, Algeria and Sudan, and there is no guarantee that Tunisia, Jordan, Bahrain and Pakistan will remain stable.
This is a pattern. Discrete crises in collapsing Middle Eastern and African countries are giving way to broader regional chaos, which is now a geostrategic factor in its own right.
After the Cold War, America briefly provided a modicum of protection and stability to this broad swath of territory. That time has passed. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. withdrew militarily from Iraq and is doing so now in Afghanistan. It abandoned long-standing allies under pressure, like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and Arab monarchies wonder when their turn will come.
Even when the U.S. intervened in March 2011 to oust Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, it relinquished the field so entirely that four Americans were assassinated with impunity only 18 months later. Mr. Obama’s Syria policy fundamentally misreads Russia’s objectives and refuses to confront the real Syrian problem: Iran. And as we saw three weeks ago, when the U.S. shut down almost two dozen embassies and consulates, civis americanus sum—the idea that Americans abroad can expect their government to protect them—is losing its force.
This is the depressing context that the White House faces as it decides the next steps to take on Egypt. The U.S. cannot pretend that the Egyptian conflict is a dispute capable of being resolved through political compromise within a framework of representative government. Such conditions do not exist.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not a normal political party as Westerners understand that term. It is an armed ideology—a militia that fires on its opponents and burns down churches. Justice Robert Jackson once said of American communists that they “assert as against our Government all of the constitutional rights and immunities of individuals, and at the same time exercise over their followers much of the authority which they deny to the Government.” The same can be said of the Brotherhood. It is, as Jackson also said of the Communists, “a state within a state.”
We need not dwell on the Brotherhood’s Islamist ideology to grasp its authoritarian nature. It desires confrontation with Egypt’s military because it rejects the legitimacy of any government it does not control. The Brotherhood, therefore, shares full blame for the continuing carnage. Should it ever regain power, whether through free elections or otherwise, it will never let go, as Mohammed Morsi was busy demonstrating in his year as president.
Opposing the Brotherhood are Egypt’s military and a collection of citizens who refuse to live under an authoritarian theocracy: Coptic Christians, pro-democracy intellectuals, a middle class that desires a functioning economy, and women who do not yearn for the burqa. Without the military’s support, however, this group would be hopelessly outmatched.
Today’s struggle is ultimately between the Brotherhood and the army. Like it or not, it is time for the U.S. to choose sides.
Hand-wringing about abstract political theories or calling on all sides to exercise restraint is divorced from Egypt’s reality. Such rhetoric doesn’t advance U.S. interests, and earns America the contempt of Egyptians across the board. In recent days, Mr. Obama has put his thumb on the scale for the Brotherhood—by calling off next month’s joint military exercise and, according to the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), by secretly halting aid. (The Obama administration denies these reports, saying it is reviewing aid programs on a “case by case” basis.)
This is the wrong move. The U.S. should support the military because even with its obvious flaws, it is more likely to support the palpable U.S. interests at stake. Three are basic.
First, it is in the U.S. interest to have an Egyptian government committed to upholding the Camp David Accords with Israel, the foundation of U.S. Middle East policy since 1979. The Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981 for negotiating Camp David, and it has never accepted it. Mr. Morsi foreshadowed abrogating or gutting Camp David as soon as practicable during his presidential campaign. With Iran nearing its long-sought nuclear capability, America and Israel would be worse off than before 1979. The U.S. is doing little to stop Iran, but we can still save Camp David. Backing Egypt’s military is the best bet.
Second, and closely related: If the Sinai Peninsula slips from Cairo’s control, terrorists like Hamas (a Brotherhood subsidiary) and al Qaeda will use the area as a haven and a highway for smuggling arms to Gaza for use against Israel and to both sides in the Syrian civil war. Egypt’s army is far more likely to prevent this nightmare scenario than the Brotherhood.
Third, for purely economic reasons, the Suez Canal must remain open. Annually, some 14% of global shipping and 30% of oil supplies pass through the canal. The Brotherhood is far more susceptible to suicidal impulses if it means harming the West. Egypt’s military does not prize martyrdom.
For these reasons and more, the U.S. should continue providing military assistance, which hopefully still provides some measure of continuing leverage. Three decades of affording Egypt’s office corps with military training has created powerful connections that cutting off aid would irreparably damage. America’s $1.3 billion in annual military aid is minimal compared to what the Saudis could provide in the U.S.’s absence, but its political symbolism remains important. Moreover, the U.S. should worry about an opportunistic Vladimir Putin stepping in to fill its shoes, eager to reverse Moscow’s historic setback when Sadat expelled the Soviets from Egypt.
There are no certainties here, only odds. But this is a real decision point for the Obama administration, not a time for half-measures.
Mr. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).
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