The prevailing analogy is Jimmy Carter's policy toward Iran in 1978-79, when an authoritarian, pro-Western leader, Shah Reza Pahlavi, was driven from power and replaced by the theocratic regime whose leaders continue to confound us. Carter's critics made the hard to disprove (or prove) claim that the shah would've been able to hold onto power indefinitely with strong U.S. support. Late last week, Hugh Hewitt said as much when he ventured this critique of Obama's policy in Egypt in an interview with Charles Krauthammer:
[W]hen I heard [Obama's public statement about Egypt], I tried to put myself in the position of a Muslim Brotherhood activist listening, and I thought Obama cleared the way, immunizing them from any kind of crackdown. In other words, that Saturday will be a tumultuous, violence-filled day, because the President signaled to Mubarak, don’t use the army....Let me go back to 1979...If we knew then what we know now, would we have been better off if the Shah had instructed the army to fire on the mob, and even with the horrendous bloodshed that would have occurred....?So theory one is that Obama can save our Egyptian ally from a mass popular movement with stronger rhetoric, encouragement of a brutal military crackdown, or both. Theory two comes from a potential Mubarak successor, Mohamed ElBaradei, who suggested this weekend that we'll get a more moderate Egyptian regime if the U.S. pulls the rug out from under Mubarak. On the basis of his own analysis of the Iranian revolution, Kai Bird agrees:
Recent events in Egypt recall the street protests of 1978 in Tehran when...Carter had to decide whether to remain loyal to the Pahlavi regime, a long-standing American-backed dictatorship—or whether the time had come to abandon the Shah and support a popular uprising demanding human rights and democracy. Carter tried to have it both ways, modulating his support for the Shah, calling for political liberalization, and warning the Shah against the use of state violence against unarmed protesters. Obama seems to be following the same script, and the results may well turn out to be equally fraught with unintended consequences....It is imperative that Washington finds a way to place itself on the side of those political forces advocating change and reform—despite America's historical baggage of temporizing with Arab kings and dictators.Hewitt says we got Islamists in Iran because the U.S. didn't back the shah, thus opening the popular floodgates. Bird says we got them because we backed him too much, further seeding and radicalizing the deluge. There's a third theory, of course, which is that it doesn't matter that much what Obama says, that political outcomes will occur in Egypt principally as the result of internal political and cultural dynamics, just as in Iran. To an extent, Bird himself concurs:
The end of the Mubarak era will...spell an end to Egypt's cold peace with Israel. No post-Mubarak government, and certainly not one populated with Muslim Brotherhood members, will tolerate the continued blockade of their Hamas cousins in Gaza. Israel will thus be faced with additional strategic incentives to end its occupation of the West Bank, dismantle its settlements and quickly recognize a Palestinian state based largely on its 1967 borders.This assertion complicates the picture even more. In Bird's view, Obama and his speechwriters can alter the course of events at a fluid moment such as this one and yet will be powerless to keep a new Egyptian government, whether dominated by moderates or hardliners and in spite of our $2 billion in annual aid, from railroading Israel.
Obviously Bird has high hopes along these lines. But if he's right that any new Egyptian government will actively support Hamas, then the revolution will probably be devastating to the peace process. Israel already has good cause to fear Hamas ending up in charge of a Palestinian state. If Egypt becomes an enemy again, I imagine Israel will at least be tempted to keep indefinitely the West Bank lands it won in the 1973 war against Egypt and its allies. If Egypt waxes even more aggressive, Israel may even be willing to vie for the Sinai again.
Nobody wants to see that happen. Whether or not it matters much what Obama says this week, let's hope that our $2 billion continues to speak loudly in the months and years ahead.