Saturday, January 29, 2011

america's role in the egyptian crisis

the problem with this reasoning is that the u.s. is already effectively involved. the dirty little secret (which isn't really a secret) is that the u.s. effectively funds the egyptian military. egypt is the second largest recipient of foreign aid from the u.s. (the first is israel) and most of that money goes to the egyptian military. that package was basically a bribe to get egypt to sign on to the camp david accord. the egyptian gravy train continues to this day to assure that egypt honors its treaty with israel notwithstanding the very strong feelings to the contrary of the egyptian people.

while the average egyptian soldier may not know where his paycheck comes from, the top military commanders certainly do. so they will be very concerned with what the u.s. says about the crisis. the u.s. has a major say in how the military acts in this crisis and the military's actions will be pivotal in determining how this thing turns out. if the u.s. wanted to really interfere, it could call egyptian defense minister mohamed tantawi and tell him not to fire on protesters, or it could say that the u.s. wants to keep mubarak in power, or replace him with someone else. if tantawi wants to continue to get his paycheck, he would probably listen. but even absent such a call, tantawi and other commanders are going to be watching the obama administration very closely for signals.

the obama administration is in a tight spot. it has little to do with gas prices. egypt produces very little oil. the only potential effect on oil is a panic in the oil market from the perceived threat of revolutionary contagion (but that threat was already there with what happened in tunisia), or the potential that turmoil in egypt might shut down the suez canal (although history makes it pretty clear that the u.s. and europe won't let that happen).

no, the reason it is in a tight spot is because of israel. even though i don't agree with the policy, israeli security is a major interest of the united states. it has extremely strong bipartisan, almost unanimous, support among the washington establishment, the white house and congress. if egypt gets a government that really reflects the wishes of its people, the egypt-israeli peace treaty would be at risk, as would the blockade of hamas-led gaza. that's the problem for the u.s. real democracy in egypt will probably produce a government that may act against what is broadly believed to be a critical american interest.

no one knows what the next government will be in egypt. you can simplistically say that an alternative regime could be worse than mubarak, but it could also be better. but really the question is: better or whose for whom? what's better for the egyptian people might not be better for the consensus view of what constitutes u.s. interests. unless the u.s. government is ready to cut israel loose (and let's face it, it's not), it's left with a clear contradiction between it's interests in the region and its commitment to democracy. that's the conundrum.