Congratulations to Reuters' Douglas Hamilton for winning this week's Vizzini Award. The award, for new readers of the blog, goes to someone who uses a term of phrase that clearly does not mean what they think it means.
If Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak is toppled, Israel will lose one of its very few friends in a hostile neighborhood and President Barack Obama will bear a large share of the blame, Israeli pundits said on Monday.
Political commentators expressed shock at how the United States as well as its major European allies appeared to be ready to dump a staunch strategic ally of three decades, simply to conform to the current ideology of political correctness. (emphasis added)
Now, there is a purely
short-sighted short-term geopolitical logic out there to justify a stalwart defense of Hosni Mubarak. Claiming that support for legitimate Egyptian demands is an example of "political correctness" seems, well, completely and totally wrong-headed. The most one could say that the United States is now in the semi-awkward position of honoring its own high-powered rhetoric on democracy in the Middle East.
Even from a strictly realpolitik perspective, however, I'm not sure exactly what Israeli pundits think could be gained from backing Mubarak to the hilt. Before his Friday speech, most Obama administration statements were at least mildly supportive, calling the Egyptian government "stable" and denying that Mubarak was a "dictator." Mubarak's disastrous Friday address, however, dramatically raised the policy costs of backing a crackdown (not to mention that I'm not sure the Egyptian army could have pulled it off anyway). As Steve Walt notes on his blog:
To maximize their own security, states want allies that are strong, stable, and that do not cause major strategic problems for them (i.e., by getting into counterproductive quarrels with others). Other things being equal, states are better off if they don't have to worry about their allies' internal stability, and if an allied government enjoys considerable support among its population. An ally that is internally divided, whose government is corrupt or illegitimate, or that is disliked by lots of other countries is ipso facto less valuable than one whose population is unified, whose government is legitimate, and that enjoys lots of international support. For this reason, even a staunch realist would prefer allies that were neither internally fragile nor international pariahs, while recognizing that sometimes you have to work with what you have.
Or, to quote Michael Clayton, "there's no play here."
This story is still interesting, however, because it certainly represents a data point against the Israel Lobby argument for American foreign policy. Scanning this good Washington Post write-up from Karen DeYoung, what's interesing is the dog that isn't barking -- namely, not one mention of Israel.
I suspect this is partly because the prospect of Arab democracy causes a serioius split between Israeli strategists and neoconservative supporters in the United States. Or it could be because, you know, the explanatory power of the Israel Lobby thesis has been vastly exaggerated.
UPDATE: I see that Geneive Abdo argues over at the Middle East Channel that Egypt 2011 is not like Iran 1978/79. Meanwhile, for another data point that neoconservatives are splitting from Israeli strategists, consider this Max Boot post:
I am hardly one to romanticize ElBaradei or to underestimate the difficulties of dealing with him. But what do his critics propose we do anyway?
Encourage Mubarak to kill lots of demonstrators to stay in power? Because at this point, that is probably what it would take for Mubarak to remain as president. Yet it is not even clear at this juncture that he could employ violence to save himself, given the fact that the Egyptian army has announced it will not fire on the demonstrators.
So what should the U.S. do? Demand that ElBaradei step down as the leader of the protest movement? Any such demand would be laughed off by the demonstrators, who are certainly not going to let their tune be called by Washington. Whom, at any rate, would we want to replace ElBaradei? There is not exactly a surfeit of well-respected liberal leaders, which is why ElBaradei was able to become the leader of the anti-Mubarak movement after having spent decades away from Egypt.
Perhaps we should demand that ElBaradei disassociate himself from the Muslim Brotherhood? Again, such a demand would be ignored, and probably rightly so. It is hard to see how any figure can claim to represent all the protesters without also speaking on behalf of the Brotherhood, which is the country’s largest and best-organized nongovernmental organization.