Stephen M. Walt

A realist policy for Egypt

Like nearly everyone-including, I assume, Hosni Mubarak himself — I’ve been surprised by the speed, scope and intensity of the upheaval in Egypt. As I write this, it’s still not clear whether Mubarak will remain in power. Nor do we know how far-reaching the changes might be if he were to leave. We should all ...


Like nearly everyone-including, I assume, Hosni Mubarak himself — I’ve been surprised by the speed, scope and intensity of the upheaval in Egypt. As I write this, it’s still not clear whether Mubarak will remain in power. Nor do we know how far-reaching the changes might be if he were to leave. We should all be somewhat humble about our ability to forecast where things are headed, or what the future implications might be.

That caveat notwithstanding, I want to offer a realist interpretation of what these events mean for the United States, along with the basic prescription that follows from that analysis. And though it may surprise some of you, I think realism dictates that the United States encourage Mubarak to leave, and openly endorse the creation of a democratic government in Egypt.

Realists are often caricatured as being uninterested in democracy or human rights, and concerned solely with the distribution of power and a narrowly defined national interest. It is true that realists tend to see calculations about power as the most important factor shaping international politics, and they often see sharp tradeoffs between strategic interests and moral preferences. Yet domestic considerations-including human rights-can be relevant for realists, particularly when thinking about one’s allies.

To maximize their own security, states want allies that are strong, stable, and that do not cause major strategic problems for them (i.e., by getting into counterproductive quarrels with others). Other things being equal, states are better off if they don’t have to worry about their allies’ internal stability, and if an allied government enjoys considerable support among its population. An ally that is internally divided, whose government is corrupt or illegitimate, or that is disliked by lots of other countries is ipso facto less valuable than one whose population is unified, whose government is legitimate, and that enjoys lots of international support. For this reason, even a staunch realist would prefer allies that were neither internally fragile nor international pariahs, while recognizing that sometimes you have to work with what you have.

Accordingly, far-reaching political reform in Egypt is an objective realists should support.   Even if Mubarak manages to cling to power, his regime has been fatally compromised. If he uses massive force to suppress the popular movement, it will be damaged even more. Mubarak himself is 83 years old, and even a successful act of repression won’t buy him (or his domestic allies) a lot of time. If the United States is seen as complicit in keeping him in power, it will solidify Arab anger and make our exalted rhetoric about democracy and human rights look like the basest hypocrisy.

In fact, this is one of those fortunate moments when the United States does not  face a clear tradeoff between its moral sympathies and its strategic imperatives. For starters, Egypt is not a major oil producer like Saudi Arabia, so a shift in regime in Cairo will not imperil our vital interest in ensuring that Middle East oil continues to flow to world markets. By itself, in fact, Egypt isn’t a critical strategic partner. Yes, military bases there can be useful transit points when we intervene in the region, but the United States has other alternatives and military intervention isn’t something we should be eager to do anyway (remember Iraq?). Egypt is not as influential in the Arab world as it once was, in part due to the social and economic stagnation that has characterized the Mubarak era, and its recent efforts to mediate several on-going disputes have been unsuccessful. Furthermore, U.S. support for dictators like Mubarak has been one of al Qaeda’s major reasons for targeting the United States, as well as a useful recruiting tool (along with our unstinting support for Israel and our military presence in the Gulf).  It is also one of the main reasons why many Arabs have a negative view of the United States. Viewed strictly on its own, the U.S. alliance with Egypt has become a strategic liability.

As a number of commentators have emphasized, the real reason the United States has backed Mubarak over the years is to preserve the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and to a lesser extent, because Mubarak shared U.S. concerns about Hamas and Iran. In other words, our support for Mubarak was directly linked to the "special relationship" with Israel, and the supposedly "strategic interest" involved was largely derivative of the U.S. commitment to support Israel at all costs. For those of us who think that the "special relationship" is bad for the U.S. and Israel alike, therefore, a change of government in Egypt is not alarming.

In fact, change in Cairo might not threaten Israel’s interests significantly, and might even help break the calcified diplomatic situation in the region. For starters, a post-Mubarak government is unlikely to tear up the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, because such a move would immediately put it at odds with both the United States and Europe and bring Cairo few tangible benefits. Although ordinary Egyptians do feel strong sympathy for the Palestinians, the primary concern of those now marching in the streets is domestic affairs, not foreign policy. A new government will think long and hard about taking any steps that might cost it the current U.S. aid package, and the Egyptian military would be dead-set against any actions that would jeopardize the support it gets from Washington. Even in the worst case where the treaty did lapse, this would not create an existential threat to Israel. Why? Because Egypt’s military is no match for the IDF and Cairo’s capabilities would deteriorate further once U.S. military aid was cut off.

Of course, if the Egyptian government becomes more responsive to its population, we can expect it to be more critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and its refusal to accept a viable two-state solution. It will also be less willing to collude with U.S.-backed policies such as the counter-productive and cruel siege of Gaza. In other words, we may be witnessing the birth pangs of an Egypt that it is a more like contemporary Turkey: neither hostile nor subservient, and increasingly seeking to chart its own course. And this might be precisely the sort of wake-up call that Israel needs, to help it realize that its long-term security does not lie solely in military strength or territorial control. Ultimately, its security must rest on being accepted by its neighbors, and the only way to do that is via a two-state solution with the Palestinians (as the 2002/2007 Saudi/Arab League peace plan envisioned).

To be sure, such a prospect is certain to alarm anyone who thinks that U.S. Middle East policy has been pretty much on-target for the past few decades. But the number of people who still believe that should be dwindling rapidly, when one considers the debacle in Iraq, the prolonged turmoil in Lebanon, Iran’s growing influence, the failure of the Oslo peace process, and the revolving door of failed U.S. Mideast policymakers, who are often wrong but never disqualified for appointment. For those of us who think that U.S. policy has been bad for just about everyone except our adversaries, the turmoil in Cairo is not a threat but an opportunity.

To be specific, this crisis in Egypt is an opportunity for the United States to rethink the underlying principles of the Pax Americana that Washington has sought to maintain in the Middle East for decades. That arrangement rested on three pillars: 1) unconditional support for Israel, 2) denying or discounting Palestinian rights, and 3) support for and collusion with various "pro-Western" leaders whose legitimacy was always questionable. Though this policy had occasional moments of success-such as the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel and the 1991 Gulf War — it was always a long-term loser. Unconditional U.S. support removed any short-term incentive for Israel to cut a fair deal with the Palestinians, and collusion with leaders like Mubarak made the United States even less popular on the Arab street.

In short, this as a moment when Barack Obama needs to be on the right side of history. And that means openly supporting the forces seeking democratic change in Egypt, not hanging back and losing the moment.As Mohamed ElBaradei said yesterday, "It’s better for President Obama not to appear that he is the last one to say to President Mubarak, it’s time for you to go." And if the Obama administration has cold feet, they might even heed the words of that arch-realist Otto von Bismarck, who famously said "The statesman’s task is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try and catch on to His coat-tails as He marches past." I don’t think God has anything to do with this business, but the footsteps of history seem to be echoing rather loudly at the moment. The question is: Will Obama hear them?

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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