“He may be a son of a b*tch, but he’s our son of a b*tch.”
You heard that quote a lot, particularly during the Cold War, but we’re getting a refresher course on what it really means today in Egypt.
That’s not to say that Hosni Mubarak is “our son of a b*tch” in the way you’d expect him to be for the 1.5 billion dollars a year we pump into his country.
What do we get for our money?
Egypt is an influential country, with a surprisingly large military for its size — and Egypt maintains peace with Israel, doesn’t actively aid the Palestinian attacks on Israel, keeps to boot on the radical Islamists in that country, and it cooperates with us, at least to a certain degree, in fighting terrorism. Of course, the government-controlled press also heaps invective on the United States and if the Egyptians wanted, they could do a lot more to prevent weapons from getting to the Palestinians.
Looking at all that, you’re may very well be thinking, “It’s not as if we’re getting a stellar bargain for our money; so why should we care if an old dictator like Mubarak gets the boot?”
Well, there are a number of reasons to be very wary of what’s happening in Egypt.
For one thing, just because a dictator’s replaced doesn’t mean it’s an upgrade. See the Shah of Iran being overthrown by the mullahs or Batista being replaced by Castro in Cuba. In this case, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a radical Islamist organization, could conceivably get into power. That would be very bad news because it could turn Egypt from a reluctant ally to a country that supports radicalism in the Middle East. It could also lead to an end to the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, which could in turn, lead to a massive uptick in Palestinian terrorism and eventually another regional war.
These are not minor concerns.
Moreover, we in the public lack the information that the Obama Administration undoubtedly has about whether this brewing revolution is likely to succeed or fail. We certainly know the situation is dire, but consider how differently you’d have to try to approach it depending on who’s going to come out on top. If you come across as supporting Mubarak, which the Obama administration generally has, it will generate bad will with the Egyptian people — especially if Mubarak is overthrown. On the other hand, if Obama comes out strongly in favor of the people and Mubarak wins out, any intelligence cooperation we’re getting from Egypt may cease.
So, it’s not an easy call and as a general rule, the folks at the State Department tend to always lean towards stability. In other words, when in doubt, you don’t want to see a big change that could lead to chaos.
On the other hand, I take a different perspective.
First off, as I noted back in April of 2004, part of the reason we invaded Iraq was to encourage this sort of thing,
If a beachhead of democracy can be established in Iraq, there’s an excellent chance that we’ll see democratic reforms start to sweep across the region where anti-American tyrants are keeping their populations in control by the skin of their teeth. The influence of a free Iraq could in time help lead to a free Iran, a free Syria, a free Lebanon, a free Saudi Arabia, a free Egypt, etc., etc. We’re not just shooting for an Iraqi democracy; we’re hoping to see freedom spread across the entire region.
Then there’s the stability argument. Back in March of 2003, I wrote,
Is it in our interest to encourage stability in a region that’s producing people who are flying airplanes into our buildings? More of that sort of stability is the last thing we need.
That’s still my thinking today.
There’s no question that what comes after Hosni Mubarak may be worse for us, for Egypt, and for the region. However, what’s there now isn’t so great either. The people of Egypt have no freedom, they’re mired in horrible poverty, and their situation will never improve unless they reach, however imperfectly, towards democracy. With what we did in Iraq, we helped start this revolution. How it’ll turn out in the short term and even the long term is unknown, but it seems to be worth gambling that Egypt will move towards freedom.