I sympathize with the frazzled Israeli diplomats who argue that halting U.S. aid to Egypt could endanger Israeli-Palestinian talks. Those talks are the only Mideast issue the Obama administration has shown any real interest in, and good salesmen always try to frame their pitch to appeal to their listeners’ interests. The argument is even correct, as far as it goes: The ousted Muslim Brotherhood government did back Hamas against the Palestinian Authority, while the current military government backs the PA against Hamas; that’s why the PA lauded the coup while Hamas denounced it.
Nevertheless, given that the talks haven’t a prayer of succeeding, backing Egypt’s military coup for their sake would be ridiculous. A much better argument, if anyone in Washington is still capable of hearing it, is the one Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev makes today: Not backing the coup could reverse one of America’s biggest foreign policy achievements of the 1970s–flipping Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states from the Soviet to the American camp. Today, Shalev warns, Saudi Arabia is begging Washington to support the coup, and refusing might send it and America’s other Arab clients straight back into Russia’s orbit:
To help make their point, the Saudis might attach the once-unthinkable photo of the meeting held earlier this month between their own Prince Bandar and a smiling Vladimir Putin. The Russian President, after all, has a proven track record in Syria of standing by an ally, even one who massacres his opponents by the tens of thousands. If Cairo turns to Moscow, Washington would be hard put to recover from the political black eye and the regional loss of face.
Actually, almost any rational Mideast player today (Israel excepted) would rather have Moscow and Tehran as backers than Washington. Between them, Russia and Iran have supported their Syrian client with arms, diplomatic cover, money, and troops, while America has given the Syrian rebels nothing but empty rhetorical support. America has also done virtually nothing to help NATO ally Turkey, which has suffered both cross-border violence and a massive influx of Syrian refugees, even though Turkey’s prime minister is one of Obama’s favorite world leaders. Nor has it done much to help longstanding ally Jordan cope with the influx of refugees that threatens to overwhelm it.
Granted, Riyadh and its allies would be reluctant to share Russia’s patronage with Iran, which they loathe; they also remember who sent troops to protect them when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. But Washington’s current passivity is making Saudi Arabia fear that America has become a broken reed; hence its feelers to Russia, via the Bandar-Putin meeting. If Washington now abandons Egypt, that could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. And if Riyadh leaves the American camp, Egypt would swiftly follow suit.
Once, American politicians on both sides of the aisle understood that America has interests as well as values, and that sometimes, the only choices are between two evils. As an example, Shalev aptly cites America’s alliance with the Soviets during World War II. And currently, as Jonathan has argued repeatedly, Egypt’s army is the lesser evil compared to the radical Islamists of the Brotherhood.
But today, leading Republican foreign-policy voices like John McCain and Lindsey Graham are joining leading Democrats to demand that Obama jettison American interests in favor of a “clean hands” policy: We don’t care what becomes of the Middle East as long as we can dissociate ourselves from the violence.
If Obama succumbs to these demands, he will set America’s position in the Mideast back 40 years–to a time when it had no allies at all among countries that remain vital to global energy supplies.