No Surprises in Egypt

What's happening throughout the Middle East isn't really surprising. Mideast experts had long been aware of the strains that these societies are under: stagnant economies, widespread corruption, massive youth bulges, faded political ideologies, and the rise of various dissident movements -- all of them held in check by brutal police states. U.S. and other leaders rightly worried about what might happen if the old order began to collapse, and mostly they hoped that this would take place on someone else's watch.

When the Arab Spring first started, many people hoped it would shake the Arab world out of its torpor and eventually produce more just, open, and efficient societies. That might still happen -- eventually -- but it is going to take a very long time and it's going to be a bumpy ride. That shouldn't surprise us either: The emergence of modern democracy in Western Europe and the United States took centuries and was punctuated by contentious and bloody politics throughout. Remember the French Revolution? The Whiskey Rebellion? European fascism? The American Civil War? One may hope that the Arab world traverses this terrain more quickly than the West did, but there's little reason to think that it will or that it will end up in the same place.

I don't pretend to be expert on the domestic politics of these societies; for valuable commentary from some people who are, see Juan Cole, Marc Lynch, and Issandr El Amrani, among others. But here are some initial thoughts on the latest events.

For starters, what is happening in Egypt today is the triumph of stupidity. First Hosni Mubarak, who had clearly lost touch with the country by the time he was driven from power. Then Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, who had the opportunity to rule after decades in opposition and blew it, big time. Instead of building a political order in which power was shared among the various groups and factions in Egyptian society, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to run roughshod over its opponents, in a heavy-handed power grab that alarmed everyone else and brought the military back into the field. And now the generals are back and trying to suppress the Brotherhood and other opponents with brutal force. That's dumb too, because the Brotherhood is well organized, has deep roots in Egyptian society, and has been around for decades.

The only solution for Egypt that I can see is one where the contending groups agree to share the country. The competing factions will eventually have to realize that none of them can rule alone and that a political order must be devised that gives each a stake and guarantees each at least some degree of political influence. That's the only formula for successful participatory politics: Those in power today can't ignore the rest of society or try to rig the game to keep themselves in power forever. (BTW: This is a lesson that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP in Turkey might heed as well). If that doesn't happen, then I fear Egypt is headed down the same dark road that Algeria traveled in the 1990s and that Syria is already on today.

What should the United States do? Not much. I'm certainly with those -- like FP's Marc Lynch -- who are calling for the United States to cease all military aid to Egypt. I actually recommended this several weeks ago, in part because Egypt doesn't need more weapons and in part because it does the United States no good to be associated with yet another military crackdown. And oh yeah: Ending aid after the July coup would also have been consistent with U.S. law. Aid to Egypt's military isn't buying the United States any leverage and U.S. aid is dwarfed by the funds that the Gulf Arab states are pouring in. If they want to double down on a bankrupt order, fine; but there's no reason for the American taxpayer to do the same.

More importantly, there isn't much the United States can do. The country lost any moral authority it might have had years ago, when it backed Arab dictators, turned a blind eye to Israel's predations, and showed a callous disregard for Arab populations in places like Iraq. Nor does the United States know how to manipulate or guide Egypt's internal politics. If the Egyptians can't figure out how to construct a workable polity, do you think national security advisor Susan Rice or Secretary of State John Kerry could? And because a narrative of Western interference is a key element of jihadi ideology, the last thing the United States should do is intervene with military force or try to tell Egyptians how to run their own country.

The good news -- such as it is -- is that U.S. "vital interests" are not really engaged here. I know Americans like to think that everything that happens everywhere is a direct threat to American security, but this is another one of those cases where the actual U.S. interest is modest. We have every reason to prefer an Egypt that is stable, prosperous, friendly, supportive of human rights, and at peace with Israel. But Egypt has been none of those things at various points over the past 50 years, and somehow the United States managed to survive and prosper anyway. Yes, what happens in Egypt could affect Israel's security in a modest way, but Egypt is too weak to be an "existential threat" to Israel and Israel isn't the United States (despite what some senators and congressmen seem to think).

Lastly, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the U.S. government is basically out of its depth here and has been for some time. Bill Clinton's administration helped put the United States in al Qaeda's cross-hairs through its policy of "dual containment" and its bungling of the Oslo peace process. George W. Bush's administration made things worse by invading Iraq and promoting a policy of "regional transformation." And Barack Obama seemed to think that all he needed to do in the Middle East was give a few speeches and rely on the same discredited diplomats who were responsible for most of the previous failures. It is Obama's misfortune to be president when these long-simmering problems finally came back to haunt us, but the writing has been on the wall for a long, long time.


National Security

America's Paranoid 'Stop and Frisk' on a Global Scale

Here in the United States, federal judge Shira Scheindlin has ruled that New York City's "stop and frisk" policy is in fact a form of racial profiling that violates basic constitutional rights. According to the New York Times editorial:

"Under the Fourth Amendment, police officers can legally stop and detain a person only when they have a reasonable suspicion that the person is committing, has committed or is about to commit a crime. Over the years, however, the Police Department has adopted a strategy that encourages cops to stop and question mainly minority citizens first and to come up with reasons for having done so later."

I read this story and immediately thought about the similarities to certain aspects of U.S. foreign and national security policies. "Stop and frisk" is essentially an act of preemption or prevention: The suspect hasn't committed a crime, but the police go after the person on the basis of the thinnest of suspicions, like a bulging pocket or the loosely defined "furtive gestures."

Now think about the United States' use of drones or special operations forces to conduct "targeted assassinations" of suspected terrorists. In many cases, U.S. officials have some reason to think somebody might be planning a terrorist operation, but the person isn't actually doing it when officials decide to take the individual out. Notice that this policy goes way beyond mere "stop and frisk": If the United States can't apprehend someone it thinks might be dangerous, these days it just blows the person away and calls the individual a "suspected terrorist" afterward.

Unfortunately, the information on which these suspicions are based is far from 100 percent reliable. Moreover, no matter how often we are told that drone strikes are "surgical" and precise, sometimes the United States is in fact killing innocent people along with those who might actually be dangerous. But most Americans don't care because this is all happening a long way away and mostly out of sight. The negative consequences -- increased terrorist recruitment and rising anti-Americanism abroad -- only show up later.

Or think about the story that John Grisham published in the Times Aug. 11, chronicling the sorry plight of Nabil Hadjarab, an Algerian who has been imprisoned for 11 years (11!) in Guantánamo. Since being captured after the invasion of Afghanistan, Hadjarab has been tortured, force-fed, and kept mostly in solitary confinement. But what he hasn't been is tried and convicted of a crime.

Think about it: 11 years in brutal solitary confinement, and we still don't know whether this man did anything wrong. A saga like this sounds like Stalinist Russia or Saddam Hussein's Iraq; instead, it is the official policy of the Land of the Free. Indeed, Grisham reports that Hadjarab has twice been recommended for release yet remains in custody today. The sad Gitmo saga is "stop, frisk, and toss in jail" on a global scale: The United States scooped up all sorts of people, sometimes for good reason but in other cases simply because somebody sold them out for a bounty. And then the country let them languish in legal limbo for years.

What's going on is a predictable consequence of the post-9/11 hysteria that swept the United States, aided and abetted by the George W. Bush's administration and largely seconded by President Barack Obama. U.S. officials built al Qaeda into a threat of monstrous proportions -- which it never was -- and they continue to sound that tocsin today. This approach is no different from those of earlier presidents who declared a "war on drugs" in order to justify policies that have filled America's prisons with minor offenders but have done nothing to reduce drug use. The basic principle is the same: If you get enough people sufficiently scared, they will let government officials do all sorts of dubious things in order to feel safer.

I know: These situations aren't identical. The U.S. Constitution supposedly guarantees certain rights for U.S. citizens, but those constitutional protections don't extend to foreigners. One could also argue that international politics is a dangerous business and that preserving security and liberty in the United States requires the country to do nasty things overseas. Of course, this last argument is always invoked whenever someone wants to justify an otherwise heinous action, whether firebombing civilians in World War II or overthrowing nationalist leaders in the developing world during the Cold War.

An exaggerated sense of threat is the common thread uniting these various policies. Unfortunately, hardly anyone in official circles has an interest in downplaying threats, and plenty have an interest in inflating them. A dangerous world is one where politicians and officials get a free pass from most of the citizenry, and a pervasive sense of danger allows them to keep more secrets, intimidate the media, marginalize or prosecute dissidents, and operate with far greater latitude in general. Small wonder that Democrats and Republicans seem equally inclined to portray minor global problems in the most lurid terms.

It really is quite funny: The United States is still the world's strongest economy, and it has the world's most advanced and capable military forces, the world's most reliable nuclear deterrent, and no great powers nearby. Yet it finds itself chasing spooks and ghosts all over the world because it has somehow convinced itself that it is in fact very, very vulnerable. I'm not saying that no dangers exist, but hardly any pose a serious threat to the American way of life. Until the U.S. political system is able to calibrate these dangers in a more sensible way, the country is likely to continue chasing fantasies. And the tragic part is that many things the country is now doing may in fact be making these problems worse.

U.S. leaders are fond of saying that America's great power and moral values give it a "special responsibility" for global leadership. In fact, America's great power seems mostly to give U.S. leaders a remarkable sense of indifference to the consequences of their actions. (Have you heard any members of the Bush administration apologize for the carnage the United States helped unleash in Iraq?). And in contrast to Judge Scheindlin's recent ruling about the New York Police Department, the real difference is that there is no global judge who can rule these actions illegal and force the U.S. government to conform to broader global norms.

Photo: PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images