In the big marble halls of Washington, in the slow ambling pace of summer cocktail parties where veterans of the political establishment still shake their heads at the fall of the Graham dynasty and the sale of the Post to a parvenu dot comer, the second favorite topic of conversation is how to make Egypt fall into line.
All the cocktail party guests, the senators, their aides, the editors and editorial writers, the heads of foreign affairs think-tanks and generals angling for a lobbying gig with a firm that just might want to move some big ugly steel down Egypt way once all the shouting dies down, haven’t had much luck.
Or as the New York Times, the paper that has displaced the Washington Post as the foreign affairs leak hole of the administration, put it, “all of the efforts of the United States government, all the cajoling, the veiled threats, the high-level envoys from Washington and the 17 personal phone calls by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, failed.”
And all the community organizer’s horses and his men couldn’t put the Muslim Brotherhood back together again.
Not even 17 personal phone calls from a man who couldn’t get through his confirmation sessions without becoming a national laughingstock accomplished anything.
Washington isn’t giving up, but its foreign aid card has just been neutralized by the Saudis who have offered to make up any aid that it cuts. And unlike Israel, Egypt isn’t vulnerable to threat of being isolated. Not with a sizable number of the Gulf oil countries at its back and the Russians and Chinese eager to jump in with defense contracts.
Instead of asking how to make the Egyptians do what Washington wants, it might be time for the cocktail party goers to ask what they really want from Egypt and what they really need from Egypt.
The two aren’t actually the same.
We may want Egypt to be democratic, because it fits our notions of how countries should work, but that isn’t something that we actually need.
The editorial writers and foreign policy experts who never got beyond the expat bars of Cairo will try to blame Egypt’s lack of democracy for our terrorism problem, and Obama and McCain may even echo their idiocy, but just like the attempts to blame Israel for Islamic terrorism, it’s not a policy, it’s a hollow apologetic for terrorism.
If anything, Egypt’s original unwillingness to bow to the Brotherhood nearly redirected Al Qaeda away from its war against America as the Egyptian faction sought to fight an internal war of the kind that Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria are now fighting.
Bin Laden chose to go to war against America, but Al Qaeda very nearly missed being something more like an international version of The Islamic Group focused on bombing Egyptian targets; in which case September 11 would have never happened. It may still become that, if its current focus on civil wars is any indication.
The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood will no doubt inspire some future Rage Boys to join the ranks of some terrorist group somewhere. But so would just about anything. Terrorists will seize on anything for propaganda and when they don’t have actual events to work with, they make them up. And then they blame America for them.
The Islamist consensus is that America overthrew Morsi even though Washington’s worst and dumbest are tearing out their toupees trying to figure out how to get the Muslim Brotherhood back into power. That consensus isn’t there because of anything that Obama, Kerry, Clinton or Hagel did with his 17 personal phone calls. It’s there because Islamists need us to be the enemy. The endless conspiracies that they claim we carry out against them give their pathetic existence and murderous campaigns meaning.
Given a choice between a militaristic Egypt that helps us fight terrorism and a democratic Egypt that is run by Islamists who collaborate with terrorists, putting our political capital into the Islamists in the hopes that they’ll convince the terrorists that the ballot box is mightier than the truck bomb is suicidal insanity.
We need a democratic Egypt about as much as we need sensitivity training from Mayor Filner. A democratic Egypt is unstable, vulnerable and unfriendly. And those are just its good sides.
Of the four major players in Egypt, three are fundamentally undemocratic, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian military and the Egyptian elites of officialdom, often mischaracterized as Mubarak loyalists though they have as much loyalty to him as Obama does, and one lightly sprinkled with democracy, the liberals and the left. And that sprinkling is very light indeed.
With an electorate whose idea of democracy is indistinguishable from Islamic law and a political elite that is undemocratic even when it participates in democratic elections, what reason was there for believing that overlaying democracy on them would lead to democratic values, rather than just democratic functions?
Now two undemocratic players and one lightly democratic player ganged up on a ruling undemocratic player. We can call the whole thing a coup or a candy store; it doesn’t matter much.
The process that removed Morsi was similar to the one that removed Mubarak. The same senators abandoning their cocktail parties to demand an end to foreign aid for Egypt because of the C word, were celebrating the same C word that took down Mubarak.
The difference, they will argue, is that Morsi was democratically elected. But so was Mubarak in 2005. But, they will say, Mubarak’s election was not truly democratic, it was marred by all sorts of electoral irregularities and other shady beasts of the ballot box. And they will say that Mubarak acted like a tyrant. But the same was true of Morsi’s election. And Morsi did act like a tyrant.
The coup position is reduced to arguing that the overthrow of one elected leader by popular protests and the military was a very good thing while the overthrow of another by the same means was a bad thing because one election was somewhat cleaner than the other on a scale from Chicago to Detroit.
Never mind that the first leader was an ally of the United States and that the other was its enemy.
Is the gram’s worth of difference in democracy that we’re fighting for really worth undermining our national security?
I’ve met lawyers who have told me that they would have defended Hitler pro bono because of the principle of the thing. I’ve never entirely understood why the principle of this thing trumps genocide. The application of the pro bono Hitler lawyer clause to the Muslim Brotherhood’s democracy seems even more dubious. And I have a healthy suspicion of people who too eagerly volunteer to be Hitler's lawyer or the Muslim Brotherhood's press agent for the principle of the thing.
Are we really obligated to vigorously defend the Muslim Brotherhood’s right to take over a country because the election that allowed it to come to power and begin attempting to seize absolute power wasn’t as dirty as the last election? Does the principle that democracy should be implemented here, there and everywhere, even if it leads to a terrorist group taking over the most powerful country in the region, really trump our national security?
And if so, why? Why have we volunteered to be the Muslim Brotherhood’s pro bono democracy lawyer?
The Arab Spring has thoroughly discredited the idea that spreading democracy enhances regional stability and protects our national security. We would have more luck promoting vital national interests by spreading viral goat yelling video memes than by bludgeoning other countries into having elections.
We don’t need a democratic Egypt. Even Egypt doesn’t need a democratic Egypt. What we need is an Egypt that is stable and not too excessively sympathetic to our enemies. And the best way to get that is to leave it alone.
Egypt isn’t a problem. It doesn’t need the cocktail crowd of Washington to fix it. It has plenty of problems, but the same crowd that is incapable of fixing its own economy or a broken toilet, is not in any shape to deal with those problems either.
The United States needs allies. It doesn’t need to treat other countries like children who have to be taught the right way. That same arrogant attitude has destroyed the cultures of our own cities. Treating other countries the way we treat our own people will only do for them what it did for Detroit.
Our ideal allies are countries that manage their own affairs, agree with us on some issues that matter to our economic interests and national security and aren’t actively trying to kill us.
That’s a high bar to set in the Middle East and it got a lot higher after the Arab Spring trashed the few countries that qualified.
Egypt may now be tipping back into the camp of the countries that don’t want to kill us, assuming they get over wanting to kill us for trying to get the Muslim Brotherhood back into power by hook or by crook.
We’ll never be very good friends. A deep and meaningful friendship with a population that believes in chopping the hands off thieves and stoning everyone else was never in the cards. But most alliances aren’t built on enduring love or even mutual affection.
They’re built on something better. Cynical pragmatism.
We had a wonderfully pragmatic and lovingly cynical relationship with Egypt. If Chuck Hagel stops making 17 personal phone calls every hour telling the Egyptian government how not to shoot Muslim Brotherhood terrorists, maybe one day we’ll have a cynically pragmatic relationship with Egypt again.