The Realist Prism: Indecision on Egypt Leaves U.S. Interests at Risk

The Realist Prism: Indecision on Egypt Leaves U.S. Interests at Risk

As the Obama administration grapples with what to do next in Egypt, it may be instructive to review the U.S. efforts of the past decade to bring about fundamental political and economic change in Egypt and the other countries of the greater Middle East.

The events of 9/11 were a deadly wake-up call to Washington that the status quo in the region—the perpetuation of sclerotic autocracies that provided no meaningful outlet for the economic and political aspirations of the populace—was not sustainable. Indeed, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was later to note—in June 2005, speaking in Cairo, no less—that "For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East—and we achieved neither." The U.S. was now committed to pushing for change, though not at the expense of sacrificing key American security interests in the area. For the past 10 years, the challenge has been how to create more representative, inclusive systems of governance that would remain aligned with Washington.

The first post-9/11 strategy, pursued by the Bush administration during its first term, was to push for massive transformations. U.S. military power would be used to destroy rogue regimes and terrorist networks; U.S. diplomacy would solve outstanding disputes and conflicts that had kept the region in a state of turmoil; and U.S. economic power would create the basis for prosperity and the emergence of solidly pro-American middle classes, who would, for instance, benefit from free trade agreements that guaranteed access to U.S. markets. The Iraq War was designed to "shock and awe" that nation’s ruler and to convince other opponents of the U.S., in Damascus and Tehran, especially, that they could be next. Meanwhile, it was hoped that once a pro-Western, democratic Iraq stabilized, it would give the U.S. leverage to pursue "tough love" with other American allies, including Hosni Mubarak and the House of Saud, to push for reforms in their countries. The 2004 G-8 Sea Island Summit was also, in theory, supposed to lay the foundations for massive new efforts to support political reform and economic liberalization across the Middle East.

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