Staring down a Sphinx

As Egypt sinks deeper and deeper into crisis, Washington charts a new course on the Nile.

Egypt Protest (photo credit: AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
Egypt Protest
(photo credit: AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
TUMULT IN EGYPT, THE ARAB WORLD’S LARGEST nation, a country that has been a cornerstone of the peace process, understandably raises anxiety levels in Israel. But Israelis should also take some measure of reassurance in the initial American response. Unburdened by idealistic pomposity or the internecine divides that afflicted some past administrations, President Barack Obama and his national security team have relied on principled realism and have demonstrated a remarkable degree of cohesiveness.
This drama is far from complete. Yet so far, Washington has performed well as it charts a new course on the Nile. Although major decisions in Washington await events yet to unfold, certain patterns and priorities for American policy can already be discerned.
From its first days in office, and through the current crisis, the Obama Administration has sought to strike the proper balance between America’s traditional stake in Arab-Israeli peacemaking and the resolution of the region’s other catalytic conflicts – as well as its long-term interest in meaningful, sustainable political reform in the Arab world. Obama rejects as false the dichotomy between governance and stability. As the 2009 Cairo speech set out, he believes both pursuits are vital and mutually reinforcing.
The president may have publicly identified a peaceful transition to democracy as America’s interest. But behind the scenes, the Administration is also intensely focused on ensuring that any transition does not adversely impact relations with Israel and America’s other geostrategic priorities in the region. The time to publicly raise these other concerns will come further down the road, once there is clarity about President Hosni Mubarak’s future, a transitional authority and the composition of Egypt’s future political scene.
Otherwise, America could inject precisely the wrong terms into an Egyptian debate that should remain entirely focused on core public demands for accountability, good governance, freedom and dignity.
Pundits of all stripes have sown great confusion rife with speculation about the Administration’s attitudes toward Egyptian Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the Administration is focusing its energy on the Egyptian military, one of the country’s strongest institutions and a key powerbroker that is closely tied to its American benefactor. Egypt’s generals are not waiting around for Beijing or Moscow or Riyadh to take Washington’s place, even if some are smarting from the Administration’s perceived abandonment of Mubarak.
Islamists are no doubt a critical element, but the swing factor at present is the military, which is why Washington has been so careful to maintain a constant and broad-based dialogue with Egypt’s defense and security establishment. Egypt’s military “can be the guarantor of a peaceful transition to a new, democratic order,” wrote William Quandt, a dean of American Middle East policy experts, in a February 2 essay in that seems to carefully track American policy.
The Administration may have been caught off-guard – not unlike the Israeli security and defense establishment – but it is not taking a passive approach. Washington is not sitting on its hands. There is an acute awareness within the Administration that other actors in the region – be they allies, like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, or adversaries like Iran and Hizballah – are pushing for very different outcomes.
Without concerted action by the US and its like-minded friends, the course of events in Egypt and beyond could easily go in the wrong direction.
The most obvious source of American influence is foreign aid.
But aid can be a tricky business. It is not well suited to rapid response scenarios, as America’s experience in Pakistan and Turkey demonstrates. Any quick extension or withdrawal of assistance can easily whip up nationalist sentiment and prove counterproductive.
Influence built up over years can be quickly frittered away if the aid card is not played properly. Conditionality certainly works over time – the case of Egypt post-Camp David is perhaps the best example – but subtlety and deftness is a sine qua non. President George H.W.
Bush understood this in the lead-up to the first Gulf War. If deploying dollars for diplomatic ends was not tricky enough, there is the added element of divided powers. The president’s policy is not entirely his own. Congress plays a significant, though often under-appreciated role. In some respects, it would be far easier for Obama to take military action against Iran than it would be to dangle or withdraw carrots vis-à-vis Egypt. Although foreign policy remains an arena of unrivaled discretion for American presidents, when the power of the purse is involved the Congress has a frontrow seat.
In this case, the Administration’s deep ties to Congress should help promote collaboration. Moreover, the president’s forceful, yet measured, response should help promote consensus. But the Congress also has a long tradition of independence, and with the House and Senate currently divided between Republicans and Democrats, preexisting partisan divides could spill over into debates about the Middle East.
Since Israel and Egypt signed their “disengagement” agreements in the mid-1970s, the United States has been deeply intertwined in relations between these once sworn enemies – and remains so today, as Egypt moves through its most uncertain political moment since the assassination of Anwar Sadat.
Scott Lasensky is author most recently, with Daniel C. Kurtzer, of ‘Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership’ in the Middle East (United States Institute of Peace Press, 2008). This essay is dedicated to his father, Gerald C. Lasensky, z”l.