Wednesday, February 2, 2011

You Can't Get There From Here

We'v been spending a good bit of time discussing the current events in Egypt. Jim addresses the specifics of the apparent dissonance between our domestic and foreign policies over the protests there in the preceding post; Jason over at "Armchair Generalist" goes even further, describing our Middle East policy as "broken".But I can't honestly see how the U.S. could have taken a different route than backing the strongmen who have ruled in Egypt since Nasser.

We're caught on the cleft stick of our own making because we want two things that, like matter and anti-matter, don't and can't exist together. We want to:

1) back Israel without serious question; we've been fairly supine on every question of Israeli internal defense. The Israelis make their decisions based on their own analyses, but we have been pretty muted when these analyses end up producing the punitive acts that Israel has used to defend itself from its Palestinian enemies. The cumulative effect is to make us look like Israel's complascent sugar daddy. While Israel is a nice little democracy this is really a luxury on our part, since Israel is strategically worthless, but Great Powers are allowed to have their luxuries and Israel is one of ours.

But we also want (and need):

2) at least some sort of passive neutrality from the Arab states, because they control the REAL geopolitical/strategic assets we need from the region; passage through Suez, petroleum, cooperation against the jihadis.

Genuinely "democratic" Arab states would be unlikely to help with #2 if we insisted that they come with us on #1. You can argue this until the end of forever - I personally think that the Arab states would be well off to get Egypt to absorb Gaza, Jordan the West Bank, accept a whopping cash payoff from the U.S./Israel and get the fuck on with life - but the reality is that to get an Egypt to Camp David you NEEDED a Mubarak (or a Sadat, whatever - a leader who had to be responsive to Abdul and Maryam Lunchpail would have risked his life doing it. Sadat did, and did, remember?).

So I don't see how the U.S. has any real options here. To get an "un-broke" policy you'd need to have different goals. So I think the thing here is that walloping the current U.S. leadership about Egypt is hammering on a symptom. The "disease" - the underlying malfunction that produces things like the current U.S. paralysis on Egypt - is that you can't really design a Middle East policy that gets to have both #1 and #2. And discussing the pros and cons - especially the cons - of #1 are completely and utterly off limits in Washington D.C.

It's worth noting that the fall of a U.S. backed dictator doesn't HAVE to be traumatic or disastrous for U.S. foreign policy. Sure, the post-Marcos Philippines closed Subic (Clark was unusable after Pinatubo, anyway) but in the long run the successor governments have been quite cooperative on many issues; the threat of domestic islamic rebels as well as the loom of the dragon to the west surely has a lot to do with that. Post-Pinochet Chile hasn't really been hostile, and post-Somoza-post-Ortega Nicaragua is relatively quiescent. The real notable outlier is the post-Shah Iran, but Egypt doesn't have anyone like the Ayatollah Khomeni to push it towards a violently islamic state.

So overall I suspect that post-Mubarak Egypt, though possibly not as passive on matters involving Israel, has as good a chance of being willing to cooperate with the U.S. to some extent as it does of becoming a rival. But it IS unlikely to cooperate on Israeli issues, and if the U.S. forces those issues and the Egyptian leaders - whoever they turn out to be - are forced to choose, a democratic Egypt would seem to be much less likely to follow the U.S. policy.

And it seems to me that there's no way to really do much about that.

Update 2/6/11: The situation seems to me to remain fluid and yet I don't see the things Lynch suggests happening. This suggests to me that the U.S. has chosen to hedge its bets, thinking that Mubarak, or at least his cronies, will survive.

Unfortunate. Realistic, but unfortunate.


  1. Ok, follow, . . . but when in history has a great power ever allowed their own interests to be overwhelmed by those of essentially a vassal state? When has essentially a vassal state ever been able to exercise so much influence over the great power's policy formulation?

    When in history have supposed "conservative" politicians of a great power asked that a traitor who significantly damaged the great power's interests, a paid spy, for a vassal state, be released from his sentence and sent to said vassal state?

    We're in new territory here . . . or can you think of any other historical examples of what we see happening before our eyes?

  2. I'm not sure that Iran is that much of an outlier. They sell their oil at the going rate on the world's markets and they are not selling large quantities of manpad's to America's foes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    They even provide a convenient rhetorical foil for American (and Israeli) domestic politics. I mean, what more could you ask of them?

  3. seydlitz: I could be deliberately obtuse and cite Serbia dragging Russia and Austria dragging Germany into WW1. But, honestly, it's hard to understand the dynamic here. Like I said, Israel is (internally) a nice little democracy. It has some nice scenery, some incredible history, and Israeli girls are often quite pretty. But what the hell it offers a Great Power in real terms?

    I have no fucking idea.

    It's kinda disheartening to watch us time and again get beat up in these kinds of fights because we are tied to watching our ass over Israel. When does the game become not worth the candle?

    Ael: Oh, I agree - the "real" Iran (contrasted with the scary-fake Iran the Right loves to wave around to stampede the yokels) is nothing worse than a standard unfriendly regional power, a sort of mini-China or -Russia. I used them as a contrast to the other post-U.S.-backed-dictator states which have been surprisngly loving towards this country.

  4. FDChief-

    I think the dynamic of Serbia/Russia and AH/Germany explains it quite well. Serbia provided Russia with an excuse to confront Austria, whereas AH provided Germany with a secure southeastern flank to face France in the west and Russia in the east. The German's nightmare scenario was AH making a deal with France.

    We lack all that in the relationship between Israel and the US. The US comes away with nothing but a whole lot of bad debt, lost opportunities, unnecessary enemies, squandered resources, a corrupted political system at home, . . .

  5. If anything, I'd cite the rhetoric of "pan-Slav nationalism" that Russian propagandists used to justify using Serbia as their stalking horse in the Balkans. Israel serves that function for the Right wing neocons and the center-left liberal interventionists.

    At least the Germany-Austria alliance gave Germany some strategic benefits even if the negative one of preventing a France-Austria alignment.

    Israel seems more Serbian; a cocky little fighting nation that serves as the chip on the shoulder of the Great Power.

    Either way, I don't see how we can do much here more than wait and hope that Mubarak either manages to tough it out, or that he falls quickly - either way, the worst sort of thing for us, ISTM, is what he's doing now, mobilizing some sort of Basij and pitting pro- regime civilians against antis. That way Algeria lies...

  6. Chief,
    You fail to mention the function of right wing religion and support of Israel. The right wing bible types feel the need to support Israel b/c of the rapture and apocalypse associated with the second coming of Christ. We need Israel to fulfill the predictions of the Bible.
    We lack all that in the relationship between Israel and the US. The US comes away with nothing but a whole lot of bad debt, lost opportunities, unnecessary enemies, squandered resources, a corrupted political system at home, . . .
    This/your statement pretty well summarizes current US foreign policy from 1900 to present.

  7. jim- the religion aspect is spot on. The right wingers have no interest in the Israelis themselves, just the real estate situation for their own personal reasons. After all, when the Fundies' dream come true, those Jews will be left behind.

    Several years ago, while in Israel, I chided an Israeli history prof friend about the ubiquitous models of a wooden stable and manger being sold by the tens of thousands to US and Western European tourists. Wood was far too precious a resource for use in that regard in those times. "For a people who claim to be so dedicated to historical research and accuracy, don't those trinkets besmirch your profession's image?", I asked.

    Of course he roared with laughter and said, "Actually, they are consistent with the totally cocked up image the West, and especially the US, has about Israel - from the dawn of time through the end of time. If they are going to be so dead wrong, why not at least make some money on it?"

  8. Chief,
    The comparison of Marcos to the present Egypt goat screw is lacking.
    We really don't care what happens in either place-istm. The real problem is around the corner and is called Saudi Arabia. Nothing in region matters except oil. Screw human rights.
    Marco didn't matter because we no longer needed fueling stations. We need the fueling station called SA.
    The problem is that this is a Gordian knot that even a sword cannot remedy.
    It is interesting to watch the rhetoric from O down to Charlie Rose. It's entertaining if not educational.
    I agree with the built in feature of no. 1, but i think the problem is much deeper.Our policy is always too short term and totally reactive and lacks proactive features. Example- our cold war policy in region never addressed -what next?
    Nice analysis, and as always i ask-if some bar keep at milpub gets it , then why don't our leaders. HRC should knock back shooters at milpub rather than only doing so on the campaign trail.
    I presently don't hear anyone connecting the dots vis a vis SA. That's the question here.
    I'll drink to that, but hell, i'll drink to anything.

  9. Unless Saudi Arabia gets involved in an extended civil war, it won't be a problem.

    Anyone in charge will want (need) to sell their oil at the going rate.

  10. Here's an interesting view: which compares Mubarak's latest tactic to the apartheid government in South Africa.

    I just can't see any way this ends well. What a mess.

  11. Saudi's a specific case. First, without the Al Saud family and it's retainers, there wouldn't be a Saudi Arabia . . . Second, they have direct family connections with the Sunni sect that they do everything to promote . . .

    Overthrowing/replacing them would be thus doubly difficult . . .