As the revolt in Egypt spreads, Barack Obama faces a familiar dilemma in the Middle East.
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.
It is often forgotten, but there was a major Israeli dimension to the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 as well. The shah of Iran was Israel's best friend in the Muslim world, an essential part of Israel's doctrine of the periphery. Israel not only cultivated nations just outside the core Arab center, but in the case of Iran received a substantial portion of its energy supplies via covert oil deliveries to Eilat from the Persian Gulf. Israel and Iran also collaborated on joint development and testing of a ballistic missile system capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.
President Richard Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger formalized the U.S. relationship during a meeting with the shah in 1972. They asked him to serve as the protector of U.S. security interests in the Persian Gulf at a time when the British were withdrawing and the United States was tied down in Indochina. Not only was Iran (and specifically the shah) the linchpin of U.S. regional security, but the United States had no backup plan. So confident was everyone that the shah or his successor would maintain this highly personal relationship that there had been no effort to fashion a Plan B in the event of an unexpected catastrophe.
There is genuine irony in the fact that Carter, Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin were at Camp David, in meetings that set the terms for more than a generation of uneasy peace in the Middle East, on the same day that the shah's regime experienced what would eventually prove to be its death blow -- the massacre of protestors at Jaleh Square in Tehran on Sept. 8, 1978.
There is no need to strain the analogy. Iran and Egypt were and are very different places, with very different political dynamics. But the fundamental nature of the decision that is required today by the United States is not very different from the dilemma faced by the Carter administration three decades ago. Should you back the regime to the hilt, in the conviction that a change of leadership would likely endanger your most precious security interests? Or should you side with the opposition -- either because you agree with its goals or simply because you want to be on the "right side of history" (and in a better position to pursue your policy objectives) once the dust has settled?
Of course, there is a third way. You may try to carefully maintain your ties with the current ruler (see Biden above), while offering rhetorical support to freedom of expression, democracy, and human rights. Regrettably, as the Carter administration can attest, that may produce the worst of both worlds. If the ruler falls, he and his supporters will accuse you of being so lukewarm in your support that it was perceived as disavowal; whereas the opposition will dismiss your pious expressions as cynical and ineffectual.
Revolutions are inherently unpredictable. They may fizzle or subside in the face of sustained regime oppression. They may inspire a hard line military man to "restore order" and perhaps thereby elevate himself into a position of political authority that he is later loath to relinquish. They may propel a determined radical fringe into power and thereby impose an ideology that has nothing to do with what people thought they were fighting for. They may go on far longer than anyone imagined at the start.
But for engaged outside powers, such as the United States in the Egyptian situation, a major revolt calls for a leap into the unknown. If you sit back and wait, events may simply pass you by. But if you jump into the fray too early (or with a mistaken notion of what is actually going on) you may lose all influence in the future political construct, whatever that may be. In any event, you should start thinking about how to repair or rebuild a security structure that had been safely on autopilot for too long.
Welcome to the real world, Mr. Obama.
CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images