Egypt And A Third Way In American Foreign Policy

BY Glen Tschirgi
12 years ago

Today’s post gets its launching point from an article by Barry Rubin in which Mr. Rubin sounds a very dire note for the prospects of anything like a pro-Western democracy emerging from the unrest in Egypt.

There is no good policy for the United States regarding the uprising in Egypt but the Obama Administration may be adopting something close to the worst option. This is its first real international crisis. And it seems to be adopting a policy that, while somewhat balanced, is pushing the Egyptian regime out of power. The situation could not be more dangerous and might be the biggest disaster for the region and Western interests since the Iranian revolution three decades ago.

All this may very well be the case and there is no good reason that, with this President, the worst will come to pass.

But this observation is particularly instructive, if true:

Look at Tunisia. The elite stepped in with the support of the army and put in a coalition of leadership, including both old elements and oppositionists. We don’t know what will happen but there is a reasonable hope of stability and democracy. This is not the situation in Egypt where the elite seems to have lost confidence and the army seems passive.

Add to this Mr. Rubin’s observation that

There is no organized moderate group in Egypt. Even the most important past such organization, the Kifaya movement, has already been taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood. Its leader until recently was Abdel Wahhab al-Messiri, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a virulent antisemite.


That is not to say that there aren’t good, moderate, pro-democratic people in Egypt but they have little power, money, or organization. Indeed, Egypt is the only Arab country where many of the reformers went over to the Islamists believing-I think quite wrongly-that they could control the Islamists and dominate them once the alliance got into power.

Nothing would make me happier than to say that the United States should give full support for reform, to cheer on the insurgents without reservation. But unfortunately that is neither the most honest analysis nor the one required by U.S. interests. In my book, The Long War for Freedom, I expressed my strong sympathy for the liberal reformers but also the many reasons why they are unlikely to win and cannot compete very well with the Islamists.

In all of the justified gloom over the prospects of Islamofascists coming to power in Egypt, the situation need not be as hopeless as Mr. Rubin and others fear.  As Mr. Rubin notes, the biggest difference between the unrest in Egypt and that in Tunisia is an “elite [that] seems to have lost confidence” and an army that “seems passive.”

Furthermore, there are pro-democracy groups and moderates in Egypt.  The problem is that they are weak, underfunded and disorganized.

Do you think this is something that the U.S., with its vast resources and connections to the Egyptian military might be able to remedy?

The urgent need for the people of Egypt and for U.S. interests is an all-out effort, behind the scenes and out of the public eye, to rally the moderate, non-Islamofascist groups in Egypt, with quick infusions of money and communications equipment, while making the necessary connections to the Egyptian military.

Publicly, the U.S. does seem rather limited.  Despite Obama’s naive speeches to the “ummah,” the Egyptian people have no significantly better opinion of the U.S. in 2011 than it did in 2008.  Privately, however, there is still great potential for the U.S. to aid in transitioning power away from the widely-hated Mubarak regime and toward some form of less-authoritarian leadership, backed by the military, that will promise free and fair elections.   Of course, the Islamofascists will no doubt contend for elections.  The U.S. must be prepared to back those parties that hold out the best hope of resisting the radical Islamists.   There is no reason for the U.S. to be passive, a grave mistake we made in Iraq and in Gaza.   Again, it need not be public but we should ensure that pro-democracy groups not be at any disadvantage to the Islamofascists.

The Third Way

To hear pundits such as Barry Rubin and others talk there appears to be only two options: full support for authoritarians friendly to the U.S. or support for popular uprisings regardless of the potentially disastrous consequences.

The dearth of strong, pro-democracy groups and leaders in Egypt points to a far more disturbing problem: the United States’ abject neglect of democracy in the Middle East.   As discussed in an earlier post, our neglect of democracy is a national disgrace.   It is inconceivable that over 60 years could have passed by without the development of credible pro-democracy groups in Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East.

This suggests a “third way” for U.S. foreign policy:  a two-track strategy that both recognizes the necessity for dealing with authoritarian regimes while also taking positive action to change those very regimes, preferably from the inside out.

The first track is to acknowledge– though not necessarily approve– the existing, authoritarian governments that are not openly hostile to the U.S.  There is an important distinction here that no authoritarian government, Middle East or no, can truly be counted as “friendly” to the U.S.   Authoritarianism, in whatever form, is antithetical to American values and to U.S. interests, even when it takes the guise of regimes that offer cooperation with some U.S. objectives in the world.

A true ally is a nation sharing our core beliefs in human rights, free expression and free exercise of religion– basic Western Democracy.   Excluding Obama’s disgraceful and curious treatment, Great Britain has historically been our closest ally — ignoring those, minor  spats in 1776 and 1812.   Nations with these common values are natural and easy allies:  Canada, Australia and Israel, for example.

Even nations new to the family of freedom–what Donald Rumsfeld termed the “New Europe” of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic– share a great affinity despite cultural differences.  These newly freed nations of Eastern Europe were all too familiar with the high price of freedom and its precious nature.

In this first track of foreign policy, the U.S. can justifiably acknowledge Middle East regimes that are not openly hostile to the U.S. without counting them “allies” and certainly without bowing to them (as Obama did with the Saudis in 2009).   Most importantly, to the extent that we provide military or other aid, it must come with clear strings attached.  Which brings us to the second track of U.S. policy.

The second track insists that any U.S. aid is accompanied by the development of democratic foundations.  This may take different forms in different places, but, in general, the U.S. should act on the firm conviction that every nation is either moving in the direction of greater freedom and human rights or in the direction of greater oppression and tyranny.

The U.S. will do all that it can to nurture leaders and institutions that subscribe to the core values of Western Democracy, for the day that will inevitably come when the authoritarian regime passes away.   In an ideal world, the authoritarians peacefully relinquish control and a transition is made to a democratic republic.   In a less than ideal world, the regime is pushed out and the U.S. will do all that it can to ensure that the new government is established with core, democratic values.

To be sure, we have to take the world as we now find it and not as we would wish it to be.  The U.S. has squandered decades in “stability operations.”   In football parlance, we call that “playing not to lose.”  It is not a winning strategy in football and it is surely not a winning strategy in global politics.   When we look at Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan and Gaza, maintaining the status quo is simply not an option.

Turning to Egypt, the U.S. should be doing everything it can right now to identify every, plausible democratic leader in Egypt– scattered and disorganized as they may be– and pour every helpful resource into them.   At the same time, the U.S. should be using every contact and channel it has with member of the Egyptian military to forge effective alliances with the democratic groups to serve as a bulwark against the Islamofascists.

Assure the military that they will have full U.S. support if they back the pro-democracy groups.   Sponsor public information campaigns by these democratic groups that blankets Egypt with the message that only an open and free society with full human rights for all– men and women — will make any real, lasting difference for Egypt.   Link these messages with one or more parties or coalitions that people will be able to readily identify and associate with these messages of freedom.   Once the message has achieved a certain “market penetration,” the military can then announce, however subtly, that it would support a national referendum to elect an assembly to begin drafting a constitution.   In the meantime, the military will keep order.   If possible, one or more of the democratic leaders will be appointed to lead the government on an interim basis.

It’s not perfect.  Much could go wrong, but this is the kind of fight that America needs to be about.  Unlike the passive stance adopted by Obama and other Realists, we cannot sit on the sidelines and hope that genuine democracy will somehow spring up.   It won’t.   The Islamofascists are too well organized and too ruthless to fail to take advantage of a chaotic situation.

The U.S. must do all that it can– by necessity behind the scenes given our poor public image in the Middle East– to promote genuine voices of democracy that can truly eventually be called allies.

Why bother?  What is the urgency?  Simply this: the freedom that we know in America is a revolutionary concept in this dark world, and it is under assault everywhere.  If we value our own freedom, we must have the courage to export the American Revolution everywhere we can.   Not at the point of a gun, that is a sign of failure (though, as in Iraq, a sad necessity).   We are not conquerors, we are liberators.   We need not be ashamed.   People want freedom.  It may take much longer in some places, but we should never yield the stage to the dark doctrines of oppression as our default posture.

UPDATE:  Michael Totten recently posted his interview with Abbas Milani, the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution.

In response to the a question about the development of Iran during the 1960’s and 70’s and the rise of radicalism in Iran, Milani elaborates:

We had a class of brilliant Iranian technocrats, many of them educated in the United States, including right here at Stanford. They put into effect a remarkable process of industrialization that by 1970 was bearing fruit. These people demanded political rights, and the Shah, instead of opening the country, clamped down with the one-party system.

I am absolutely convinced that in 1975, when he was at the height of his power, if the Shah had made just a third of the concessions he later made in 1978, we would be looking at a very different Iran today.

MJT: It was too late in 1978.

Abbas Milani: What Mubarak and the Shah both failed to understand is that if you make concessions when you’re weak it just increases the appetite for more concessions. If they would have made concessions when they were in a position of power, they could have negotiated a smooth transition to a less authoritarian government.

In Egypt, when the US pressured Mubarak to announce that he would not run again, that he should come out publicly and say he has cancer and that there will be a free election soon, he instead tried to create a monarchy.

MJT: He wants his son to succeed him.

Abbas Milani: The reverse happened to the Shah. He also had cancer, but he hid it from everybody. He had a son who was then eighteen years old. If he had given up the throne and created a regency in 1977, as some had advised him to do, instead of making concessions under pressure in 1978 when all hell was breaking loose, I could easily imagine a different Iran.

What could America have done differently? Milani discusses the long-term mistakes that the U.S. made in dealing with Iran and the Shah in particular:

MJT: Jimmy Carter often gets blamed for Khomeini coming to power in Iran. Do you think that’s fair? What could he have done to stop it?

Abbas Milani: I don’t blame the revolution on Jimmy Carter, but I think he does bear some responsibility. He could not develop a cohesive policy. He wasn’t paying attention to Iran. He was preoccupied with Camp David. He couldn’t bring Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski into a cohesive position. He kept vacillating from one extreme to another. This only exacerbated the American inability to understand what was going on.

The failure to understand what was going on dates back to the Lyndon Johnson years. The Johnson administration succumbed to pressure from the Shah to cease all contact with the opposition inside Iran. The US remarkably even agreed not to contact a former prime minister because the Shah didn’t trust him. The Shah even created a diplomatic row when a former Iranian ambassador was invited to a party. Not to a secret meeting, but to a party.

Because the US was involved in Vietnam and had listening centers in Iran monitoring Soviet activities, and because Iran was flush with cash in 1972 and was willing to sign contracts with American companies, the US agreed to cease contact. Yet the CIA predicted an Iranian revolution as early as 1958. And what they said would happen is almost exactly what happened. They said Iran’s rising technocratic class, the teachers, and the new urbanites are all disgruntled and that if the government doesn’t open up the system they’ll find any leader they can and topple the Shah.

The Kennedy administration pressured the Shah to make changes that were based on the standard modernization theory. You modernize the infrastructure, you educate the people, you create a better economy, and you open up the system politically. Kennedy pushed the Shah toward this and the Shah complied. He himself wanted to make changes. He wanted to make Iran a better place. The Kennedys hated the Shah. Bobby Kennedy absolutely despised him. John Kennedy disliked him, if not outright hated him.

But just as the economic changes were bearing fruit, making political change more necessary, the oil price shot up. Nixon came in and made the decision to cease pressuring the Shah. The Shah had stopped listening anyway because he had all the money he needed.

Carter came in and renewed the pressure for democratization, but he renewed it at the worst possible time, when the economy was diving. Iran was borrowing money that year. The Shah went from giving away a billion and a half dollars to borrowing 700 million from Chase Manhattan. So the economy was diving, the Shah’s health was deteriorating, and suddenly the suppressed opposition felt that the Shah was fair game because Carter was talking about human rights.

MJT: But what should Carter have done instead? Are you saying he was he wrong to talk about human rights?

Abbas Milani: No, he should have talked about human rights, but he also should have understood that you have to go step by step. Concessions need to be made in a timely fashion from a position of power. Carter should have made it clear that he was for change, but not for change at any price. Brzezinski understood this much better than anyone else in the administration but didn’t get his way. And on the other side we had the Shah undergoing chemotherapy and his endogenous paranoia, depression, indecisiveness and vacillation. The result was disaster.

When asked by Totten what Milani would advise Obama to do in the current crisis in Egypt, he had this to say:

Abbas Milani:

I would say to President Obama that he must make it clear to Mr. Mubarak that he must clearly and categorically say he won’t run again and that his son won’t run, that he will turn over the daily affairs of the state to a coalition of opposition parties. There might be a chance for a gradual transition and the absorption of the elements of the Muslim Brotherhood that really are moderate.

If this doesn’t happen, if Egypt goes into a protracted period of lawlessness, or if there is a Balkanization of the society, Mubarak will do a tremendous disservice to Egypt, to democracy, and to the United States. He’s going to put the United States in a very difficult situation.

The most important lesson that needs to be learned is that the United States must push its allies to make concessions when they are in a position of power, not when they are in peril.

The majority in Turkey, Egypt, and Iran once accepted the notion that enlightenment, democracy, modernity, reason, and the rule of law were good things, that the West has used these things to good purpose, and that we in the Muslim world should find our own iteration of them and catch up. Now the radical fringe is much stronger and directly challenges this. They say they do not want reason, they want revolution. They don’t want laws, they have the Koran. They don’t want equality because the Koran says there is inequality and they abide by the Koran. They say they don’t want democracy, that it’s a trick of the colonial Crusaders.

Thirty years ago people laughed at these ideas. Now they’re being said more and more often and openly. If the Muslim Brotherhood wins, or if Egypt becomes democratic…

MJT: It’s a big deal either way, isn’t it?

Abbas Milani: It is. Because it is Egypt.

(Emphasis Added)

This interview clearly shows why the U.S. cannot afford to take a passive approach with authoritarian “allies.”  In the end, we lose the “ally” to extremists, lose all credibility we should have as democratic revolutionaries and, perhaps, lose a bit our soul as well.


  1. On January 31, 2011 at 5:20 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Good commentary Glen. And here is something overt that the pitiful Obama administration could do without delay.

  2. On February 1, 2011 at 10:20 am, TS Alfabet said:

    This touches on one aspect of the Tea Party Movement that bothers me.

    In general, I subscribe to their views, but there seems to be at least a strain in some Tea Party circles of isolationism. The Ron Paul type of thinking that seeks to withdraw the U.S. into a tortoise shell, cut off all aid to foreign governments without distinction and, pardon the phraseology, let the world go to hell, literally. This is extreme thinking, for one. It is fine to recognize that the U.S. has, perhaps, gotten involved in too many places in the world that do not constitute vital, U.S. interests; that can be debated. But to make a blanket statement that the U.S. should never intervene internationally is the kind of childish, wishful thinking that will lead to calamity. The 1990’s proved, beyond any doubt, that a neutral, reactive posture by the U.S. only allows the enemy (of which the U.S. has all too many) time and space to bring the fight directly to our homeland. We paid a steep price for that on 9/11/01. Since that time, whatever one thinks of our aggressive moves in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere, the U.S. has not been hit in any meaningful way. We took the fight to the enemy, at least until 2009. We did not sit at home and wait to be hit. You can be sure that, if we take a complacent, reactive posture again, the next attack will make 9/11 seem pathetic by comparison. Any politician, Liberal, Conservative, Libertarian, Tea Party, Green, etc.. who says otherwise is a fool. Even Obumble, who campaigned on changing just about every Bush policy if elected, has changed his mind when he was briefed on the actual threats against the U.S. Even Obumble couldn’t ignore that kind of reality.

  3. On February 1, 2011 at 10:40 am, Herschel Smith said:

    Yes, the Ron Paul, Glen Beck (tea Party) style isolationism is good for a ninetheenth (or perhaps eighteenth) century world (and don’t get me wrong, I agree with them on most domestic policies). It was good for a world where armies stood up in a field and marched towards each other with muskets firing. Borders meant something, economies weren’t utterly and completely dependent on the power grid:

    And so on. Again to regular readers, study the first Chapter of Robert Kaplan’s book Imperial Grunts, called “Injun Country.”

  4. On February 3, 2011 at 12:16 am, Palaiologos said:

    At some point the West will realize that Islam and Democracy are mutually exclusive. The talk here of “democracy” in Egypt is Carteresque, and sounds like the fantasy merchants who sold the Ayatollah as a reformer. We sold out a loyal ally, the Shah, and now we are selling out another. Has everyone in the US establishment forgotten the critical role Mubarak and his military played in dismantling parts of the al-Qaeda network? Do you know anything about the Muslim Brotherhood and its history? Why is it we demand that Mubarak leave, yet host and honor the “leader” of China, the head of a political party that has murdered at least one hundred million of it’s own citizens? Mubarak may be sold down the river by the US (like the Shah, RVN, Eastern Europe, etc.) but as usual, the joke will be on us. Wait till the dominoes start to fall in the East, then come back here and talk about how you supported “democracy” in Egypt.

  5. On February 3, 2011 at 10:38 am, Glen Tschirgi said:

    @ Palaiologos,

    I agree with you that it is disgraceful how the U.S. kowtows to China. Obama has taken this to new lows with actual bowing and scraping. My approach to U.S. foreign policy would not treat China as an “ally” and push for greater democratization in China just as Reagan did with the Soviet Union. (Natan Sharansky and others have affirmed that Reagan’s direct confrontation with the Soviets had a palpable and beneficial impact for political prisoners and shook the confidence of the regime at the time). It is the Realist school of foreign policy that has us ignoring the crimes of these despots for the sake of “stability.”

    As for your charge of “Carteresque,” please take a look at the interview of Abbas Milani by Michael Totten that I have added to my original post. Milani notes that Carter failed to push for genuine reform by the Shah when the Shah was in a position of strength and could have managed the transition to representative government. Also, Carter and just about every, other Administration since WWII failed to see the threat of radical Islam and counter it in any fashion. My approach would not blindly embrace democracy (like Carter and Obama) regardless of the fascists posing as democracy groups, but fully back genuine pro-democracy groups against the fascists and radicals. (Of course that requires having a CIA that is actually developing HUMINT and running agents).

    As to the incompatibility of Islam and Western/liberal democracy, the interview with Milani is very instructive. He notes the two schools of Shia Islam: quietist (represented by Sistani in Iraq) and absolutist (represented by Khomeini in Iran). Iraq seems to put to the lie that a democracy cannot ever exist in an Islamic state. I would agree with you that radical/absolutist/sharia Islam is incompatible with democracy, so Gaza, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the like are, at the present time, not democratic and would have to embrace the type of Islam that does not equate the State with the Clergy. To the extent that Iraq can avoid/escape the influence of the absolutists from Iran and continue to embrace the quietist doctrine of Sistani, it is completely possible that Iraq can continue to solidify and expand its democracy.

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