What Is Egypt?

As America's new secretary of state arrives in Cairo, it's still not clear the United States knows what it's dealing with.

When Secretary of State John Kerry sits down with Egyptian officials during his trip to Cairo this weekend, he will no doubt drag out an old talking point: The United States and Egypt, leaders from both countries are fond of saying, enjoy a "strategic relationship."

Yet for all the talk of common interests and close alignment, few can define what this actually means. President Barack Obama has worked hard to keep relations between Washington and Cairo on track as Egypt has lurched from one political crisis to another over the last two years -- but where exactly is that track supposed to be leading?

It is not at all clear that the president knows. When Hosni Mubarak visited Washington in 2009 after a five-year absence, Obama fell back on platitudes, praising the Egyptian dictator as "a leader and a counselor and a friend to the United States." The substance of ties were almost as empty as the words: Almost three years to the day later, Obama averred that Egypt was neither an ally nor an enemy.

If Egypt is not an ally and it is not an enemy, then what is it? No one knows. To get around the question, American officials have engaged in remarkably consistent circumlocution. In late 2004, as President George W. Bush's administration was ramping up its "forward-leaning strategy of freedom in the Middle East," a group of Washington-based journalists and think tankers asked a senior American official in Cairo to describe what the United States wanted in Egypt. He replied, "We want whatever Egyptians want."

Such a statement was disingenuous -- the Egyptian government at the time clearly did not want U.S. efforts to promote democracy, even if some of its citizens welcomed it. And what if Egyptians want to break the peace treaty with Israel? Or develop close ties with Iran? But more than that, given the impossibility of determining what the Egyptian people -- clearly not a monolithic group -- really want, it was essentially meaningless.

Fast forward to 2013, and Americans are still groping when it comes to Egypt. After a trip to the Middle East -- which did not include Egypt -- Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said that it would not be Washington that defined the future of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship: At a gathering at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Feb. 27, he noted the strength of ties was "up to the Egyptians."

This muddle did not always characterize U.S.-Egypt relations. Ever since the early 1950s, when Amb. Jefferson Caffery was cultivating Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt has been a strategic prize for the United States. To cold warriors, Egypt's strategic position, the Suez Canal, and its political influence in the Arab world were valuable assets for containing the Soviet Union in the Eastern Mediterranean, and North and East Africa, and making sure the oil kept flowing from the Persian Gulf.

Caffery's efforts to woo Nasser came to naught, however, over congressional opposition to a large military aid package and Egyptian nationalist reservations about becoming a leading member of a new Western security system in the Middle East. Yet what didn't work out while President Dwight Eisenhower and Nasser were in power became reality under Richard Nixon and Anwar Sadat. Cairo had grown weary of Moscow by the early 1970s, and Sadat had come to believe that only Washington could provide the resources Egypt needed in its ceaseless quest for modernization. The U.S.-Egypt strategic relationship was born.

A bulwark against the Soviets. The end of the state of war between Egypt and Israel, as embodied by Sadat's trip to Jerusalem. A key pillar of the Western security system in the Middle East. These are concepts belonging to an era that came to an end more than two decades ago, yet continue to serve as the foundations of U.S.-Egypt relations. They were outdated even before the uprising that toppled Mubarak. Washington could always tell itself that the aging autocrat was an asset because he kept the Suez Canal open, maintained the peace with Israel, and kept the Islamists down. But following the political turmoil of the past two years and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, that faulty logic is even clearer -- President Mohamed Morsy, after all, hasn't moved to overturn the regional political order or challenge the peace treaty with Israel.

As the Cold War has receded from memory, American policymakers have had a hard time articulating the rationale for an increasingly outmoded relationship. They have been left sputtering about "wanting what Egyptians want," or leaving well enough alone because the relationship "worked." In a narrow sense, it does -- but toward the end of the Mubarak era, it began to seem that a "strategic relationship" was just something American and Egyptian officials said publicly while they haggled over money. The military aid went to weapons systems that the Egyptians would either never use or had a hard time mastering, and the economic aid was too little to do much good against the vast backdrop of Egypt's economic struggles.

Muddle will not serve either country well. Inside the Beltway, there is an odd disconnect about Egypt. Among one group, there are officials who understand how much has changed in Egypt -- but nevertheless talk about doing business with Egypt as if it were 2010, or 1999, or 1989. It's all about aid and access to Egypt's airspace and the Suez Canal, which are byways to places of more intrinsic importance to the United States.

Still another group of policymakers -- in this case, members of Congress -- recognize the changes in Egypt and want to penalize it for straying from American interests. As one Capitol Hill insider described this one-dimensional view, the Muslim Brothers are Islamists and Islamists are terrorists, thus Egypt should not get aid from the United States. Everyone else, meanwhile, is simply stymied by the complexity of the "new Egypt" and are just hoping the country does not collapse under the weight of its mounting economic problems and surreal politics.

The problem with defining a strategy is that Washington is not much interested in Cairo. To be sure, policymakers and analysts discuss the importance of promoting democracy in Egypt, but American policy in the region is geared toward larger goals -- ensuring the flow of oil from the region, helping to protect Israel, and making sure no single country dominates the Middle East (other than, of course, the United States).

In other words, Egypt -- whether it is a democracy or not -- is a means to some other end. Washington is interested in Egyptian stability because it is interested in Saudi security, or the Iranian challenge, or Israel's well-being.

Now, as a new secretary of state prepares for his visit to post-Mubarak Egypt, there is hope for a renewal of ties. But once again, Americans are hard-pressed to articulate the underlying rationale for strategic alignment apart from the familiar formulations about peace and stability in the Middle East. Proposals to transform the relationship to "trade not aid" have never gotten much traction, and are hardly the bases for strategic ties. Likewise, explicit threats to cut aid in return for reform have had minimal impact on the trajectory of Egyptian politics.

Perhaps clarity of purpose in U.S. policy is impossible at a moment when Egyptian politics are so unsettled. It seems that sunk costs -- a total of around $75 billion since the mid-1970s -- bureaucratic inertia, and the fact that the Egyptians need the United States right now all account for the current loveless marriage.

It may just be that strategic alignment between Egypt and the United States represented a moment that has now passed. The U.S. investment in Cairo has brought benefits to Washington -- but now the best thing for the United States is not to try to mend the old strategic ties, but start anew. Obama got it right in May 2011 when he stated that Americans must look at what has happened in the Arab world with humility, but without abdicating their values. That means, in part, recognizing that Egyptians want a relationship not necessarily of equals -- that is impossible -- but one that is more respectful of the way they define their national interests.

This formulation quite rightly makes some Americans (and Israelis) nervous. But there's good news: Whatever comes to pass, Cairo is unlikely to align with Washington's enemies. Morsy's flirtations with Iran are about showing Egyptians that there is a difference between the Mubarak era and now. It is also about signaling to the Saudis that Cairo plans to be an influential player in the region. In the same way, the Egyptians have proven tougher on Hamas than many expected, refusing the organization's request to open an office in Cairo and flooding the tunnels that run under the Egypt-Gaza frontier, which have served as a critical Hamas supply line. And needless to say, the new Egypt still has no use for Hezbollah or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

It is unlikely that there will be a dramatic change in Washington's approach to Cairo as a result of Kerry's visit. That is all right: Egypt is struggling with its own internal demons, and is in dire need of economic assistance. Yet when Kerry and Obama are not dealing with the Egyptian crisis of the moment, they will have accomplished much if they move U.S.-Egypt relations out from the straitjacket of outdated strategic ties to more normal relations, befitting the changes in Egypt and the region around it.

This requires that policymakers take the long view -- an alleged strength of the current administration -- and understand that a bit of distance between Washington and Cairo could be a good thing. And who knows, maybe some time apart will remind the two countries of why they got together in the first place.

Daniel Berehulak /Getty Images


Dead-End Road

Rogue states have a pretty convincing track record of ignoring sanctions, so what makes Congress and the White House think they'll work on Iran?

If the latest round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and Western powers has proved anything, it's that the raft of sanctions deployed against the Islamic Republic, supposedly the toughest in history, has failed to change the regime's calculus. Two days of talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, yielded no deal to end enrichment and no deal to close Fordow, Iran's secretive underground facility near Qom -- just a pledge from both sides to pick up where they left off again in April. Far from caving to Western demands, moreover, Iran's chief negotiator boasted that the Barack Obama administration, in dropping its insistence that Fordow be shuttered, had moved "closer to the Iranian position." Yet on Feb. 27, the day after the talks concluded, U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation that would further restrict commercial dealings with Iran and punish foreign companies that violate U.S. sanctions.

Almaty was hardly Exhibit A for the efficacy of sanctions, but then again nobody expected it to be; Iran has repeatedly voiced its unwillingness to negotiate under pressure, and on Feb. 24, lawmakers in Tehran even signed a petition urging the negotiators to take a hard line at the talks. "The West must learn that Iran's nuclear train, which moves on the rails of peaceful goals, will never stop," the petition read, according to a state-run news agency. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei put it more bluntly in a statement on his website earlier this month: "You are pointing a gun at Iran saying you want to talk. The Iranian nation will not be frightened by the threats."

Nonetheless, a central feature of the Obama administration's Iran strategy has involved turning the screws on Tehran. The question is: why? Unless they are deployed in conjunction with other coercive methods (read: war), economic sanctions have a pretty abysmal track record of altering states' behavior. Examples of failed sanctions regimes abound: The League of Nations couldn't halt Benito Mussolini's conquest of modern-day Ethiopia in the mid-1930s; a crushing financial and trade embargo didn't persuade Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait in 1990; and North Korea just conducted its third nuclear test in violation of U.N. sanctions. And oh, how's that half-century old embargo of the Castro regime working out?

The truth is that sanctions rarely, if ever, work. In the only quantitative study that's been carried out on sanctions' effectiveness, economists at the Washington-based Peterson Institute found that 75 of the 115 sanctions episodes between 1914 and 1990 failed to achieve their desired effect -- meaning that they succeed only 33 percent of the time. That's a pretty good batting average for a baseball player, but the estimate, it turns out, was probably overly generous. According to political scientist Robert Pape, many of these supposed successes were actually resolved directly or indirectly by force; others exhibit no evidence of concessions by target states. In the end, Pape argues, only five of the 115 cases considered by the Peterson Institute economists can be considered unqualified successes. Economic sanctions, in other words, "have little independent usefulness for pursuit of noneconomic goals."

Even the supposed success stories are problematic on closer inspection, according to Pape. The end of white rule in Rhodesia, often attributed to the success of a U.N. sanctions regime, for example, is actually better explained by increasingly destructive guerrilla warfare. Indeed, the sanctions regime went into effect a full 10 years before the Rhodesian government reached a political settlement with African nationalist parties in 1979. Likewise, multilateral sanctions against South Africa may have actually slowed the pace of reform, according to former President F.W. de Klerk, who presided over the end of the apartheid system. It also "hurt the black population much more than the white population," he said in a 2012 speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It didn't help those who it was intended to help; it actually harmed them more than it harmed the intended victims of the sanctions."

The only real examples of successful sanctions regimes, according to Pape, involved minor diplomatic quibbles over political prisoners and, in one case, the relocation of an embassy in Israel. The singular exception is South Korea's decision to forgo purchasing a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant from France in 1976, a move that is difficult to explain without taking into account U.S. and Canadian sanctions.  

So why don't sanctions work? They tend to unite target populations at the same time as they divide the international community. They can also inspire allies of the target country to actively undermine the sanctions regime, as they regularly did during the Cold War. But the single greatest reason that sanctions fail to alter the behavior of rogue states is that they are no match for the rampant ideological or nationalist sentiments they are pitted against. Mussolini's statement in 1935 says it all: "To sanctions of an economic character we will reply with our discipline, with our sobriety, and with our spirit of sacrifice," he declared on the eve of Italy's Oct. 3 invasion of Abyssinia. His sentiment has been echoed by embattled leaders many times since, from North Korea's Kim Jong Il (and now Kim Jong Un) to Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who famously declared: "We don't mind having and bearing sanctions banning us from Europe. We are not Europeans."

That's not to say that sanctions don't serve a purpose. They clearly function as important signaling devices, enabling states to express disapproval or commit themselves to international norms. They can also do significant damage to the target state's economy and national defenses, thus rendering it vulnerable to subsequent external military aggression, as was arguably the case for both of the Iraq wars. What sanctions do not typically achieve by themselves, however, is an appreciable shift in the behavior of rogue states.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Iran, which has been subject to unilateral U.S. sanctions of one form or another since 1979, U.N. sanctions since 2006, and European sanctions since 2012. Together, these restrictions have wreaked havoc on the Iranian economy -- sending the rial into freefall and reducing the country's oil exports by some 40 percent in the last year alone -- but failed to persuade the regime to abandon its support for terrorist proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah or halt its nuclear program. As Khamenei put it in a televised speech earlier this month, "If the Iranian people had wanted to surrender to the Americans, they would not have carried out a revolution."

There is, of course, one clear exception: In 2003, weeks after U.S. troops had toppled Saddam Hussein, Iran allegedly reached out to the United States through the Swiss ambassador with an offer of comprehensive, direct negotiations aimed at resolving the differences between Washington and Tehran. In return for the lifting of sanctions, recognition of Iran's legitimate right to nuclear technology within the bounds of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the handing over of Iraq-based members of the militant Mujahedine-e-Khalq (MEK), among other things, Iran said it was willing to end its support for terrorist organizations, cooperate with the United States in its war on terror, submit to intrusive international nuclear inspections, and even throw its weight behind an Arab-Israeli peace plan that would involve normalization of relations with the Jewish state. The offer, as Trita Parsi explains in Single Roll of the Dice, was "nothing short of an American wish list of everything that needed to change about Iran."

For reasons that are still contested -- some George W. Bush administration officials say they doubted the authenticity of the document -- the United States chose to ignore the offer, which expired just as soon as U.S. momentum in Iraq and Afghanistan began to stall and the full extent of Iran's influence in post-Saddam Iraq became evident. The Islamic Republic would never again express that level of willingness to bend to Western demands. Without the fear of U.S. forces rolling into Tehran and repeating what they did in Baghdad, the Iranians have felt free to flout the international community, even as it ratchets up the severity of the sanctions. As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly said in 2010, "There will be no war against Iran... there are rational men in the United States that who do not support taking such a step.

Threatening tougher sanctions makes for good politics. It's a way to say, "See, we're doing something." But it's almost certainly destined to fail. So maybe it's time to start calling sanctions what they are: an effective (though expensive) way to name and shame states that flout international norms, but an unrealistic strategy for getting them to fall into line. If the Obama administration is serious about preventing Iran from going nuclear (or achieving threshold capacity), it's going to have to think of something else -- and fast. Every day the United States spends tightening the screws is another day that Iran's centrifuges are spinning toward a bomb.