Who Exactly is Deeply Unrealistic about Egypt?

Daniel Larison at the American Conservative suggests my views about Egypt are deeply unrealistic. I’m a bit puzzled by this: It’s hardly as if I’ve been swept up in the romance of these events; I’m the one pointing out everything that could go wrong, no? 

I’ll address these comments to him directly in the hope of a reply. Daniel, I’m not sure exactly where you’re arguing with me. I’m not looking for a pointless faux-debate where we both stake out an exaggerated claim out of irritated pundit-pride, I’m just trying to understand what you’re saying so better to understand the disagreement.

On January 19, you wrote: 

… the Tunisian uprising isn’t going to lead to regional transformation. As Josef Joffe argues, Tunisia was just prosperous enough, and most other Arab countries are either too poor and their peoples too poorly-educated, or they are so rich on account of oil wealth that their peoples will not follow the Tunisian example.

I don’t think we quite know what the Tunisian example is yet, but definitely something about that event is triggering off a massive chain reaction in the region. Do you still think the possibility of regional transformation remote? I’d say by definition the fall of Mubarak means massive regional transformation, and at this point it seems to me–and most observers, I think–more likely than not. 

Now, you wrote in response to me, 

The administration could tell Mubarak that. Instead of the increased criticism it has already promised, the administration could threaten Mubarak with its “wrath.” Would this entail merely the suspension of aid, or would it involve more serious penalties? In other words, what exactly should the administration be threatening to do to Mubarak and his allies if they do not comply?

You answered this question yourself three days ago:

The administration should urge the Egyptian government to avoid violence, and it should be willing to withdraw aid if Mubarak uses excessive force against protesters.

Let me clarify my position: Suspending aid would be no “mere” expression–that’s the crux of it. Again, that aid amounts to an astronomical sum; Egypt is the second-largest recipient of US military aid in the world. I’m not suggesting a more severe expression of wrath than that, if that’s what you’re wondering–I’m not proposing that we start bombing Mubarak. I don’t think any reasonable person would read my comments that way. Cutting off the funding would be quite sufficiently wrathful, as would a strong statement that the people of the United States are disgusted and furious to see this government brutalizing its own people.

If I understand you correctly, Daniel, you think we should not say this, because “publicly backing the protesters simply contributes to an escalating confrontation that cannot end well for the protesters or the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.” My position is that the confrontation is escalating whether we like it or not–and surely you can see the likelihood that backing the regime won’t end well for the protesters or the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, either. Leaving aside all moral sentiment, this seems obvious as a pure Realpolitik calculation. 

You then note your concerns about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: 

By the end of the week, it looks as if the Brotherhood will have officially joined the protests as well. The protesters cannot be neatly separated into the “good” secular democrats here and the unacceptable Islamists over there. For that matter, there is as yet no evidence that any of the protesters object to the Brotherhood’s participation.

That significantly undermines the claim that Berlinski is fully in favor of Egyptian democracy, because she is clearly (and I think correctly) opposed to the consequences of empowering the Muslim Brotherhood, which will almost certainly be the result of the realization of a democratic Egyptian government.

Whose claim was this? Not mine. My point precisely was to beware those who would exploit democracy to end democracy. But you seem to think there are only two alternatives in Egypt: Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s Mubarak’s line, for sure, but is it right? If it is, we’re in trouble, but it is not by any means necessarily true. There is a real risk of making it true if we demonstrate our perfect indifference to the brutalization of the protesters. Certainly, we are doing ourselves no favors when we officially deny the abundantly obvious: The Egyptians hate Mubarak–and it is not just the Islamists who hate him.

SultanAlQassemJoe Biden on Mubarak “I would not refer to him as a dictator.” http://bit.ly/f6Ypya #Jan25 Mubarak has only been in power since 1981. 21 minutes ago via web

That comment from Biden is directly from Minitrue. Mubarak’s a dictator. We can’t win by lying and denying this. Such comments simply make the United States appear craven. 

Our policy should be to state the truth. Mubarak is a miserable tyrant. The Muslim Brotherhood should not be given any opportunity to take power because it too would impose a miserable tyranny. There are people–probably the majority–in Egypt who want genuine democracy. They’re the ones we support. We should support them in our rhetoric and with our money. One point three billion dollars–Egyptian democrats, come and get it, it’s yours.

A statement like this from our President would not go amiss:

I urge the Egyptian Government and its allies to consider the consequences of their actions. How can they possibly justify using naked force to crush a people who ask for nothing more than the right to lead their own lives in freedom and dignity? Brute force may intimidate, but it cannot form the basis of an enduring society, and the ailing Egyptian economy cannot be rebuilt with terror tactics.

I want emphatically to state tonight that if the outrages in Egypt do not cease, we cannot and will not conduct “business as usual” with the perpetrators and those who aid and abet them. Make no mistake, their crime will cost them dearly in their future dealings with America and free peoples everywhere. I do not make this statement lightly or without serious reflection.

That was actually Ronald Reagan, speaking of Poland–I just changed the country. The Poles are now great friends of America. There’s a reason for that.

Do you mean to tell me that the country that supported the Solidarity movement is too stupid to figure out how to do this in Egypt? If so, we’re too stupid to survive. 

  1. John Marzan

    but it was easier with Poland because they were under Soviet influence. Reagan had nothing to lose making that statement.

  2. MMPadre

    Claire,

    Do you think the situation in Egypt is analogous to that of Poland?  Where is the Egyptian Solidarity?  The Egyptian Walesa?  The inchoate longings currently roiling the Middle East are a welcome sign, but without clear identities on the side of political liberty I cannot see the situation ultimately benefiting any but the politically –and militarily– organized.

  3. Claire Berlinski
    C
    John Marzan: but it was easier with Poland because they were under Soviet influence. Reagan had nothing to lose making that statement. · Jan 28 at 2:06am

    Oh sure he did–and there was tremendous pressure on him not to. You forget the degree to which the prevailing wisdom was that Reagan’s stance on the Soviet Union was insane and his rhetoric apt to provoke nuclear holocaust. It was also widely argued that it was immoral to encourage Solidarity because we would only be encouraging them to get themselves killed. 

  4. John Marzan
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    John Marzan: but it was easier with Poland because they were under Soviet influence. Reagan had nothing to lose making that statement. · Jan 28 at 2:06am

    Oh sure he did–and there was tremendous pressure on him not to. You forget the degree to which the prevailing wisdom was that Reagan’s stance on the Soviet Union was insane and his rhetoric apt to provoke nuclear holocaust. It was also widely argued that it was immoral to encourage Solidarity because we would only be encouraging them to get themselves killed.  · Jan 28 at 2:54am

    You probably right. Obama stood mute while Ahmadinejad’s goons cracked down on iranian dissidents. Obama sold out the Georgians to Putin for some vague promises on helping the US out on Iran.

    i’m trying to recall the moment when America decided to cut ties with former ally Marcos. At what point did Sen. Laxalt tell Marcos to “cut and cut clean.”

  5. John Marzan

    I can understand Obama’s reluctance to speak out against Mubarak. But he was un-Reagan like and very cowardly on Iran in 2009. the Mullahs took a measure of the man and found him wanting, a weak horse.

  6. Kennedy Smith

     Claire and John are both right!  At the time, Reagan was seen as reckless and starry-eyed.  In 2009, Obama was shamefully (to all patriots everywhere) feckless and wussified.

    But you just know there’s a Brisnewski in the WH urging us not to do anything, because “realistically” we need Egypt and the House of Saud as a counterbalance to Iran.  Such a clean, well-maintained little chessboard.  You just know that’s happening.

  7. Robert Barraud Taylor
    But you just know there’s a Brisnewski in the WH urging us not to do anything, because “realistically” we need Egypt and the House of Saud as a counterbalance to Iran.  Such a clean, well-maintained little chessboard.  You just know that’s happening. · Jan 28 at 5:17am

    Undoubtedly!  Yet meanwhile, to extend the metaphor to outrageous lengths, the chessboard is tilting; it’s coming apart into individual tiles, the pieces are going this way and that, and everyone is frantically trying to keep it just the way it was.  So much easier, apparently, then making a decision.

  8. Ursula Hennessey
    C

    Claire, any response from Larison?

  9. Aaron Miller
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    A statement like this from our President would not go amiss:

    I urge the Egyptian Government and its allies to consider the consequences of their actions. How can they possibly justify using naked force to crush a people who ask for nothing more than the right to lead their own lives in freedom and dignity?

    What these protesters want is an overthrow of the de facto government. I can’t imagine any government responding differently to threat of a coup.

    Ceasing aid to the Egyptian government will not negate its leaders’ will to remain in power. Ending aid would only help if it strengthened the coup by increasing pressure… and then only if the coup succeeded.

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: Egypt is the second-largest recipient of US military aid in the world.

    So the U.S., Israel’s most solid ally, supplies huge amounts of military aid to one of the nations that tried to wipe Israel off the map in 1967 and continues to house anti-Semitic groups?

    Meanwhile, we also support Saudi Arabia, which leads the global jihad against us.

    Let’s face it, Mid-East diplomacy is anything but sensible or simple.

  10. Aaron Miller
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Do you mean to tell me that the country that supported the Solidarity movement is too stupid to figure out how to do this in Egypt?

    There’s a significant difference between the Egyptian situation and Poland. The Soviet Union was overtly the primary enemy of the United States. Egypt is an ally, if only in front the cameras.

    Publicly condemning the unjust actions of an enemy is a no-brainer. Not so with allies.

  11. Irene F. Starkehaus

     Claire – I claim full ignorance on what’s going on over there.  My eyes glaze over when I try to contemplate the Middle East.  It’s like a chess game with nuclear weaponry.  You say that this is an event that we need to care about and I believe you, but is this likely to be a replay of Iran or is this truly a pro-democracy event that was inspired by Iraq?  I’m hearing conflicting reports all over the place.  I simply don’t know enough about any of this to form a good opinion.  And even if it is a pro-democracy event, do the protesters stand a chance of achieving their goals?  Just a simple question from someone who’s too ill informed to be complex about the situation.  Are you optimistic?

  12. Pseudodionysius

    What Claire said, big time. Churchill wasn’t Churchill by saying something everyone else thought was self evident.

  13. Sisyphus

    I’m a bit with Aaron on this one. Only in Obama’s head does one ever score points by bad mouthing ones friends and allies. We need to continue our friendship with and support of the Egyptian people without baldly throwing Mubarak under the bus. The Muslim Brotherhood is who we should throw loudly under the bus, with a laundry list of crimes committed as why.

    And somebody needs to shut Joe Biden up. Take him out and buy him a popsicle, but no press. Tell me the man is not tweeting.

  14. Palaeologus
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:Do you mean to tell me that the country that supported the Solidarity movement is too stupid to figure out how to do this in Egypt? If so, we’re too stupid to survive.  ·

    Even granting hyperbolic license, that seems like a stretch. Count me with Aaron & Sisyphus.

    Of course we can figure out how to help topple Mubarak. That’s easy.

    Should we, though?

    For gratitude? From the Egyptian people?

    How about the Israelis? Or the Hashemites? Will either be grateful for populist governance in Egypt? I’m doubtful.

    Because it’s the right thing to do? That’s a stronger argument, but hardly a no-brainer. What if the thugs take over the next day? Mubarak might balk at slaughtering his own people, but the Islamists won’t.

    If Mubarak falls the best plausible outcome I see is an Egyptian Erdogan, and the spread of the fervor to Saudi Arabia instead of Jordan.

    An Islamic chauvinist (as opposed to an Islamist) might successfully co-opt the anti-secularist impulses of the Arab public. The fall of Saud could be a net positive even if Al Qaeda wannabes replaced it.

  15. Leslie Watkins
    Let’s face it, Mid-East diplomacy is anything but sensible or simple. · Jan 28 at 7:19am

    Gotta cut the crap somewhere, dontcha?

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