The string of popular uprisings that are rocking the Arab world, most recently in Egypt, have created a fundamental dilemma for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Policymakers are being forced to place a bet on an outcome that is inherently unpredictable and pregnant with some unsavory consequences.
There is no shortage of talk about the conditions in these Arab countries that has given rise to the revolts. They have very young populations, poor economic performance, meager future prospects, a widening divide between the wealthy and the poor, and live with a culture of authoritarian arrogance from governments that have come to regard their position as a matter of entitlement. The line between monarchies and "republics" has become so blurred as to be meaningless. Family dynasties rule ... and rule and rule, seemingly forever.
Just about everyone agreed it had to change. But the masses appeared so passive, the governments so efficient at repression -- the one job they did really well -- that no one was willing to predict when or how change would happen.
Now that the status quo is shaking, there are expressions of amazement that the U.S. government made its bed with such dictatorial regimes for so long. We coddled them and gave them huge sums of money while averting our eyes from the more distasteful aspects of their rule. How to explain this hypocrisy?
The facts are not so mysterious. It was an Egyptian dictator (Anwar Sadat) who made peace with Israel, leading to his assassination; and it was another dictator (Hosni Mubarak) who kept that peace, however cold, for the past 30 years. As part of that initial bargain and successive agreements, the United States has paid in excess of $60 billion to the government of Egypt and an amount approaching $100 billion to Israel. The investment may be huge, but since the Camp David agreement negotiated by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 there has been no new Arab-Israel war.
Some may quibble with the crude implication of a payoff or the collapsing of several generations of politics in the Middle East into this simple formula. But it has some validity. Here is how Vice President Joe Biden answered when PBS anchor Jim Lehrer asked him whether Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was a dictator:
Look, Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he's been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region: Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel.
And I think that it would be -- I would not refer to him as a dictator.
Leslie Gelb, a former senior U.S. government official and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, put it this way:
The stakes are sky high. Egypt is the linchpin to peace in the Middle East. So long as Egypt refrains from warring against Israel, other Arab states cannot take military action by themselves...
So in some minds, the issue is primarily about Israel. As far as I can tell, the government of Israel has yet to declare itself on the wave of uprisings in the Arab world. But if this is an Israeli issue, then it is not just a U.S. foreign-policy problem but also a domestic one, especially in the run up to a presidential election year. The stakes, indeed, could be very high.