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Realpolitik vs. the Long-Term Good

One of the ironies of the present crisis in Egypt is that it is exposing once again the ridiculousness of one of the nasty slurs flung against neocons by the likes of John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt who accuse them of being — what else? — agents of Israel, Likud, the International Zionist Conspiracy, or whatever. To hear these realpolitikers tell it, when neocons advocate liberal reform in the Middle East, they are secretly doing the bidding of their Zionist puppet-masters to the detriment of American interests (as understood, of course, by the same folks who thought that Mubarak was a rock of stability — and before him, the Shah of Iran). In reality, most Israelis fall firmly in the realpolitik camp and, were it not for their knee-jerk Israel-bashing, would agree with Mearsheimer/Walt about how to define American interests in the Middle East. (Natan Sharansky, a prominent advocate of Arab democratization, is one of the few exceptions, but he is seen as very much an outlier.)

Consider this Reuters dispatch headlined “Israel Shocked by Obama’s ‘Betrayal’ of Mubarak.” It quotes some truly hysterical comments from Israeli commentators bemoaning the apparent end of the Mubarak regime. A sample:

One comment by Aviad Pohoryles in the daily Maariv was entitled “A Bullet in the Back from Uncle Sam.” It accused Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of pursuing a naive, smug, and insular diplomacy heedless of the risks.

Who is advising them, he asked, “to fuel the mob raging in the streets of Egypt and to demand the head of the person who five minutes ago was the bold ally of the president … an almost lone voice of sanity in a Middle East?”

“The politically correct diplomacy of American presidents throughout the generations … is painfully naive.”

This is the authentic voice of the Israeli public facing the loss of “their” man in Cairo. Like many Western realpolitikers, most Israelis I have spoken with assume that Arabs are incapable of practicing democracy and that any attempt to tinker with the stable if oppressive status quo in surrounding states will lead only to the creation of more anti-Israeli regimes. I have heard Israeli officials defend keeping in power the Assad regime in Syria, which is still technically at war with Israel. Needless to say, Israelis are even more devoted to Mubarak and the Hashemites in Jordan, who have actually made peace with them.

Their outlook is understandable, but, I believe, short-sighted. As I argue in the Wall Street Journal today, Mubarak may have been friendly with Israeli and American leaders, but he also turned a blind eye to the vile anti-Semitic and anti-Western propaganda spread by his state media, schools, and mosques. This, along with the stagnation of his sclerotic regime, has made Egypt a prime breeding ground for Islamist extremism.

The U.S. and Israel have bought ourselves some help from Mubarak over the past 30 years but at a high price. It was always obvious that the bargain couldn’t last forever, because Mubarak was intensely unpopular and would fall sooner or later. Some of us were arguing for years that the U.S. had to do more to pressure Mubarak to reform, even to hold hostage his American aid package (see, for instance, this 2006 op-ed I wrote). Our concerns were dismissed by the realpolitikers, in both the U.S. and Israel, who said it was no business of ours to meddle in Egyptian politics. Now events are spinning out of control and we can do little to affect the outcome.

If there is one lesson that should be drawn from this crisis it is that we can’t back an unpopular and illegitimate status quo indefinitely. Now is the time to push for real reform in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other allied states — not to mention in hostile states such as Syria and Iran. But I bet Israel will prefer to cling to its realpolitik policies.


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