Sunday, January 30, 2011

What Really Counts: U.S. Words Or Billions?

Barack Obama must be feeling pretty powerful these days. Though he can't get a bill through the House anymore, the word from an abundance of commentators and bloggers is that the next 30 years of Egyptian history is his to write by virtue of a righteous turn of phrase.

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.


MK said...

I used to read Krauthammer occasionally years ago but no longer do. I came to find him too partisan and agenda driven, hence very predictable. Not what I’m looking for in commentary. As you’ve figured out, I’m drawn to independent and nimble thinkers, not partisans. Hewitt I’ve never followed. It’s not that he’s a lawyer. In theory a lawyer could write insightfully about issues related to his field of specialty. Bob Barr wrote some very interesting columns about legal issues and the Bush Department of Justice during the last administration. Quite refreshing, but I think Barr left the GOP at the end of the Bush administration—he came to identify as a libertarian. Perhaps that explained the boldness, even bravery, in some of what Barr said back then. I mean the ability to step “out of the box.”

So no, it’s not that a lawyer doesn’t know how to connect with people outside an amen corner. It’s just that in the extracts I’ve read here, at Sully’s site, at other sites that quote him, Hewitt doesn’t seem to offer anything to someone like me. Especially in areas outside his field of specialty, law. Does he often wander into fields outside his academic specialty, such as foreign policy or the presidency? Airtime to fill, I suppose. (He’s a talk radio guy, right?) But still, I have to wonder, why?

But then, when you come down to it, only one of the “talkers” on the right is an historian, as I recall. And that is Gingrich. . . . There are some people on the right whom I follow and give consideration to on domestic issues--David Brooks, Bruce Bartlett, Joe Scarborough, David Frum, Kathleen Parker (she flopped bigtime with her out of touch, “in a bubble” column on exceptionalism in today’s WaPo, however.) I’ve been searching for a long time for someone worth reading on foreign policy, haven’t found him or her yet among the present day commentariat. (Yes, I know there's someone named Victor Davis Hanson out there but I'm not impressed by his stuff, either.) Perhaps some day a conservative historian will hit the big time, but I rather doubt it, history being so fact and data oriented. Not rewarded in this very emotivist seeming age, where the Palins and Becks and Limbaughs bring in the big bucks.

Still, as so often when there’s breaking news in parts of the world that few other than specialists understand, it’s fascinating to watch the big microphone guys jump into things. If ever an issue required nuance and care, it's this one. . . .

Fr. John said...

Thanks, MK. I wonder if what you long for is commentary that's disconnected from the commentator's partisan agenda.

Hugh, for instance, is a happy warrior for the GOP, though by no means the Limbaughesque figure that Sullivan makes him out to be by cherry-picking quotes. When Egypt happened, some conservative commentators seemed tempted to say, "How do we spin this against Obama?" Interestingly, that hasn't caught hold. For the first time in a while, many conservatives (I'm mainly thinking of Krauthammer and Bolton at the moment) are saying that Obama's handling things just right.

I have the same aversion to shrill left-wing rhetoric that you do to the right-wing variety, so I don't know how many folks are joining Kai Bird in urging the U.S. to abandon Mubarak.