Watching the chaos in Egypt and the confusion at the White House, it seems to me that decades of shortsighted U.S. policy – touting democracy while propping up undemocratic strongmen like Hosni Mubarak, and somehow believing nobody is noticing the gap between our words and deeds - have left policymakers here in an impossible situation.
If we press for the immediate departure of Mubarak, we create a vacuum which forces we fear – not without reason – may effectively exploit.
And this isn't just abstract ideology; if the Camp David peace is abrogated, as the Muslim Brotherhood seems to advocate, the results could be catastrophic for a Middle East already on the edge of new violence.
But if we accede to Mubarak's demands for a delay, and maybe for a transitional government that will figure out how to perpetuate the military rule that has always been the basis of his power in this “democracy,” we will just fan the rage of those Egyptians who want this despot to go, thereby ensuring that the ultimate result will be more extremism, more anti-Americanism and more instability
Damned if we do and damned if we don't – which is what decades of “pragmatism” that takes into account only short-term interests will do for a nation's foreign policy.
I understand Israel's dilemma as it faces the possibility Egypt could be moving toward a government that rejects the peace Mubarak supported, however coldly.
But it's also undeniable that in seeming to be just about the only nation that favors a continuation of the current regime – with or without Mubarak – Israel is compounding its isolation in the world and fanning the already-raging fires of anti-Israel anger across the region.
Short term, tilting toward stability may make sense ; long term, tilting toward stability may guarantee much more instability.
I wonder what we'll learn from the Egypt crisis. If history is a guide, probably not much.
This is the dilemma that has left the Obama administration flipping and flopping – supporting Mubarak, then nodding to the demonstrators, then supporting the more gradual transition a slippery Mubarak demands. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
The Egypt crisis was decades in the making, but the Obama administration's lurches haven't done much to fix the mess they inherited, and may end up making things worse.
Today's Washington Post editorial summed it up nicely, if disturbingly:
The Obama administration has said it wants a free election, and it has called on Mr. Suleiman to include all opposition movements in his talks and to begin taking specific steps to open the political system. But the measures the regime has taken, such as announcing the prosecution of a pro-business member of Mr. Mubarak's cabinet and granting a 15 percent pay increase to state employees, are intended to deflect rather than respond to the demand for change. If the regime succeeds in this strategy, Egyptian supporters of democracy will be marginalized and embittered. And given the administration's policy, they probably will blame the United States.
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