The Middle East Channel
Egypt’s aftershocks shake the Washington debate
It is commonplace for historians to compare revolutions to earthquakes, but the metaphor remains powerful. The Egyptian revolution is much like an earthquake: its epicenter may be Cairo, but its shockwaves have reached all the way to Washington. Since the first crowds began to appear in Tahrir Square, the Egyptian trembler has so shaken the ...
It is commonplace for historians to compare revolutions to earthquakes, but the metaphor remains powerful. The Egyptian revolution is much like an earthquake: its epicenter may be Cairo, but its shockwaves have reached all the way to Washington. Since the first crowds began to appear in Tahrir Square, the Egyptian trembler has so shaken the U.S. that small but perceptible cracks have begun to appear in the foundations of America’s Middle East policies — and in the comity of opinion that has guided U.S. views of the region for 60 years. The changes were first evidenced last week, when policymakers, pundits and government officials made the rounds of the Sunday morning television news shows.
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared on CNN, interviewer Candy Crowley was blunt: which side is the U.S. on — "Mubarak or the people in the streets?" she asked. Clinton laughed slightly, then rejected the question: "Well, there’s another choice, it’s the Egyptian people," she said. "We are on the side, as we have been for more than 30 years, of a democratic Egypt that provides both political and economic rights of its people, that respects the universal human rights of all Egyptians." Of course, Crowley knew (as we all knew) that if Clinton had been asked the same question just the week before, her answer would have been entirely different: that our friendship with Egypt is based on its peace treaty with Israel, its opposition to Iran and its hostility to political Islam.
The difference between the two answers is less a reflection of America’s Orwellian relationship with the truth ("we are on the side, as we have been for more than 30 years, of a democratic Egypt"), than it is of the Obama administration’s realization that a new constellation of leaders will soon take office in Cairo — and we’re going to have to deal with them, like it or not. Washington’s pro-Israel lobby is scrambling to reverse this view, because talking to a new set of leaders means talking to the Muslim Brotherhood — which might be bad for Israel. This was made clear on the same day that Hillary Clinton appeared on CNN.
Writing on the events in Tunisia in the Washington Post, Robert Satloff — the head of Washington Institute for Near East Policy (which was founded by AIPAC) — argued that the U.S. should promote "discriminate democracy" — a "democracy for all but the Islamists." By discriminating against Islamists, he writes, the Obama administration would "protect U.S. security interests" — code for Israel. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen was even more candid, putting his belief in democracy behind his support for Israel: "I care about Israel," he wrote on February 1. "I care about Egypt, too, but its survival is hardly at stake. I care about democratic values, but they are worse than useless in societies that have no tradition of tolerance or respect for minority rights."
What is important about these statements is not that they reflect the unanimous views of the pro-Israel lobby — but that they don’t. In truth, the same earthquake that has shaken the foundations of America’s policy in the Middle East has also shaken the foundations of America’s pro-Israel partisans. Most recently, neo-conservative writer and Israel supporter Robert Kagan showed up at the White House as part of a team to urge President Obama to press for democracy in Egypt — and was quoted in The New York Times as saying that the U.S. was "overly spooked by the victory of Hamas…" He then asked: "What are we going to do — support dictators for the rest of eternity because we don’t want Islamists taking their share of some political system in the Middle East?" Kagan’s astonishing turnaround (in 2006 he slammed foreign policy "realists" as Hamas appeasers) is mirrored by former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, another outspoken Israel supporter. On the same day that Richard Cohen wrote his anti-Brotherhood diatribe, Gerson endorsed Egyptian elections that would include all political parties and movements: "Condoning an unjust stability involves the assumption that people will remain in servility, suffering and silence," he wrote. "The pervasive failure of American foreign policy elites is a lack of confidence in American ideals." The two commentaries were notable, though not simply for what they said: neither mentioned Israel.
The Satloff-Kagan standoff reflects a growing debate in the American foreign policy establishment. Should the U.S. sacrifice democracy in the name of "stability," advocating (in Satloff’s vision) an Animal Farm-derived mantra of, ‘all Arabs are equal, but some are more equal than others?’ Or should America dampen its hysteria, promote its values, support "free, fair and credible" elections — and live with the results? For a hint of how America might choose, we return to Candy Crowley’s talk show when, in the wake of her interview with Hillary Clinton, she questioned former U.S Ambassador to Israel (and Egypt) Edward Walker. Wouldn’t a new government in Egypt be hostile to Israel? Walker was perceptibly irritated with the question, signaling a growing view that America and its values — and not support for Israel — must be at the center of U.S. policy in the region. "It’s up to Israel, actually, to make its case for a good relationship with Egypt," he said. "It’s not really up to us to do that." Surprisingly, a growing number of Israel’s American supporters agree.
Mark Perry is a military and foreign policy analyst living in Arlington, Virginia and the author of eight books. He has spent over twenty-five years meeting and interviewing senior Arab leaders. His most recent book is Talking To Terrorists. You can follow him on twitter @markperrydc