The Great American Dilemma

Despite the petty carping at the Obama administration’s failure to foresee uprisings, the US is being spared an ugly domestic debate about “Who lost Egypt?” But what about the rest?

US Dilemma (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
US Dilemma (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
THE EGYPTIAN REVOLUTION IS NOT OVER AND ITS ultimate course is not foreordained. But though many Egyptians may come to regret the popular movement that led to the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, the widespread gratification that comes from getting rid of the embodiment of a detested regime is, at least for now, an undeniable fact of Egyptian life.
The United States, too, can be gratified, at least for now, that it is being spared an ugly domestic debate about “Who lost Egypt?” True, there has been lots of petty carping at the Obama administration’s failure to foresee the outbreak of the uprising and its declaratory zigzags as the 18-day drama unfolded. Nevertheless, the debate has been carried out in a fairly restrained fashion. For example, Republican House Speaker John Boehner, not normally a supporter of anything the Obama Administration does, conceded that it had handled “a very difficult situation” in Egypt about as well as possible. In this debate, there is nothing remotely approaching the shrillness of previous arguments over “Who lost China?” “Who lost Cuba?” or even “Who lost Iran?” The relatively sanguine tone this time cannot be attributed to a sudden decision to let politics stop “at the water’s edge.” The more likely explanation is a more mature appreciation of the complexity of the problem of regime change and of the limits of American power.
The time has long passed when American proconsuls in developing countries could, with a perfunctory wave of the hand, depose incumbent rulers and install new ones. Of course, the US is still capable of launching military invasions to get rid of rulers it really doesn’t like, even in countries not convulsed by domestic upheavals. The former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was (briefly) living testimony to that, and Manuel Noriega of Panama and Afghanistan’s Mullah Omar still are. But those are extreme cases, all the more unlikely in the foreseeable future because of the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That does not mean that the only alternative to war is total passivity.
All societies are afflicted by domestic rivalries and tensions, and there is room for the US (and others) to influence the course of developments, especially if these tensions have broken out into open conflict between a regime and a semi-coherent opposition. Through the careful use of moral suasion, economic and technical support, threats and promises, information and public diplomacy, the US can bolster and encourage or weaken and demoralize one side or the other.
However, even clear thinking about how to intervene does nothing to resolve the dilemma of whether to intervene and, if so, on who’s side.
At first glance, this should not be an issue when the regime under threat is hostile to both the interests and the values of the US. In the case of Iran, for example, there would appear to be every reason to support the opposition in every way possible. But even in such cases, things are not always as simple as they seem. Rhetorical encouragement might lead the opposition to exaggerate its prospects by raising unrealistic expectations of physical American intervention in the event of a brutal response by the regime or its foreign patrons – which some argue is what happened in Hungary, in 1956, and in Iraq, in 1991. If such physical support is not forthcoming, the human condition of oppositionists, at least in the near term, becomes even worse than before.
The picture is far more complicated when the regime under siege is authoritarian but congenial to American interests, as has been the case in Egypt and could become so in other critical Middle Eastern countries such as Bahrain, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Here, the US must walk the fine line between loyalty to allies and loyalty to values.
And it must do this without reliable instruments to make these calculations or even grasp the direction in which events are trending so that it can get on the right side of history.
Finally, even these choices do not exhaust the list of dilemmas that US policymakers may face in the near future. Theoretically, at least, regimes can also be democratic but hostile to American interests, like Lebanon, or even authoritarian and hostile to American interests but threatened by an opposition potentially even more authoritarian and/or hostile to American interests, as in Syria.
Almost every country in the Middle East is potentially ripe for revolution. In none of them is it possible to predict exactly when this will happen, how it will play out, or how American intervention of any sort will impact events. Consequently, the zigzags denounced by critics of US policy should perhaps more accurately be described as constant adjustments to inevitably changing assessments of changing circumstances. Of course, administrations need to develop a range of scenarios and policy options in order to reduce – though never completely eliminate – the chance that they will be taken by surprise. But except in those truly rare cases where both the situation and the response are blindingly obvious, the best option is often just what common sense suggests – keep your mouth shut and your powder dry.
Mark A. Heller is a principal research associate at the Tel Aviv University-affiliated Institute for National Security Studies.