What is happening in the streets of Egypt is not about the United States or its relation to Hosni Mubarak. The drama has to do with life inside Egypt after 30 years of Mubarak’s autocratic rule, which was preceded by 30 years of similarly autocratic rule by Nasser and Sadat. And yet there seems to be an idea, which one can find suggested in the latest writings of Caroline Glick and Stanley Kurtz, among others, that the United States might have played a crucial role in preventing what appears to be the inevitable Mubarak ouster — and that the U.S. is thereby acceding to the takeover of Egypt by a government that will make the region less safe, less hospitable to us, and of greater danger to Israel.
That may all be so. But it doesn’t actually matter as a practical reality. Kurtz and Glick and some others are, I think, guilty of reiterating a great foreign-policy fallacy, which is that the United States has the power to control the outcomes of large-scale events in faraway lands even when it does not have a direct hand to play with troops and planes and bombs.
Where is the evidence that the United States has a role to play in the prevention of change? Recent history suggests that our only really effective role when it comes to change is when we involve ourselves in hastening it, as we did with assassinations in the 1950s and 1960s, or by choosing sides with the forces of change, as we did in the 1980s in places as various as El Salvador and the Philippines and in the 1990s in Haiti and Bosnia.
Think of the times we have attempted to slow down or impede change. We did in Iran in the late 1970s in a way that came a terrible cropper. We did again, to our shame, at the beginning of the 1990s, when “Chicken Kiev” Bush tried to slam the brakes on the dissolution of the Soviet Empire. And is anyone happy with the way the Obama administration handled the post-election revolt in Iran in 2009?
The implicit notion in these analyses is that the United States should be backing Mubarak to the hilt so that he could put down the revolt before the Muslim Brotherhood takes over. But aside from the highly questionable proposition that our encouragement and support would change the balance of forces in Mubarak’s favor, doing any such thing is akin to suggesting that we ignore the forces of gravity. It is unrealistic in the most basic sense. It is written into the DNA of the United States that, when push comes to shove, we cannot support the forces of tyranny over mass protest.
Hardheaded choices must be made at times, and indeed have been made at times, especially when the options were a regime friendly to the United States vs. a regime that would have been friendly to the Soviet Union. But those choices did not come at moments of flash-point crisis, with a regime’s legitimacy crumbling before the world’s eyes. And they didn’t come at a time when worldwide instant communications make it impossible for the regime to black out the evidence of its suppression.
In warning us not to view the goings-on with unwarranted optimism, those expressing profound concern about what will come next in Egypt are performing a great service. We are heading into rough waters that had been largely stilled in recent decades. But that is why, perhaps, they should have been more supportive of the idea that Mubarak and others should have been pushed toward democratic reform so that the transition to change might have been managed rather than simply observed powerlessly as it turns into a runaway steamroller.