President Obama’s public approval ratings have continued to head south in recent weeks. Those results represent the general disgust about an administration that broke its word on ObamaCare and was too incompetent to build a website that works to sell health insurance. But the consensus among most pundits is that although his domestic policies are viewed negatively, most Americans don’t have much of a problem with the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Given the lack of interest in foreign issues it’s difficult to judge whether the president’s weak nuclear deal with Iran is really seen as a positive development or whether they like the way he punted on the crisis in Syria. The only thing we know for sure is that a war-weary public is glad when the use of force is avoided even if they might be leery about handing a victory to Vladimir Putin in Syria or trusting the hate-spewing ayatollahs of Iran to keep their word about their nuclear weapons program.
But as much as the president’s efforts to pull back from the Middle East may resonate with those Americans who are sick of conflict, a policy of retreat is not one that stands up to much scrutiny. Thus, although the public understandably cares a lot less about the administration’s policy on Egypt than it does about ObamaCare, the news yesterday about the conclusion of an arms deal between that country and Russia ought to dismay even the most casual observer of foreign policy. The issue isn’t so much whether the Egyptian military will be buying planes and other equipment from Moscow so much as what the accord represents: a staggering reversal for U.S. influence in the Middle East and a signal victory for a Russian dictator who is trying to resurrect the old Soviet and tsarist empires while making mischief for America.
It was a little more than 40 years ago that Anwar Sadat kicked Soviet advisers out of Egypt. After decades of depending on Moscow for arms in order to pursue Egypt’s conflict with Israel, Sadat decide that he would be better off throwing in his lot with the United States. After the Nixon administration and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ensured that the Yom Kippur War ended with Egypt not suffering a humiliating defeat, what followed was a gradual shift away from war that led to Sadat’s historic trip to Israel and ultimately the peace treaty with Israel. In exchange for peace, Egypt not only got every inch of the Sinai that had been lost as a result of the aggression it committed in 1967 but also a guarantee of U.S. aid that has stood for more than 30 years. The alliance with Egypt was not only a building block for Middle East peace upon which further attempts to resolve the Arab and Muslim war on Israel were based. It was also the rock upon which American efforts to stabilize the region rested.
Though there were always good reasons to worry about the future of the repressive regime of Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak, the alternatives to him were always far worse, both for the U.S. and the Egyptian people. That basic truth was reaffirmed in the last three years after President Obama, who had downgraded efforts to democratize Egypt first undertaken by President George W. Bush, helped push Mubarak out of power in the wake of the Arab Spring protests. While the Egyptian military was an unattractive option, the possibility of the country falling into the hands of the Islamist opposition was appalling. Yet that is precisely the outcome the administration seemed to push Egypt toward during this period as it threatened the military with an aid cutoff if they interfered with the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts to consolidate power in the wake of their election victory.
Once the Brotherhood assumed control in Egypt, the U.S. did not seek to exert its leverage to force the Islamists to pull back on their attempt to transform Egypt in their own image. When, after a year of misrule and tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call for the Brotherhood’s ouster this past summer, the U.S. again sought to stop the military from acting–but this time the generals ignored the president’s warnings and put an end to the Islamist government. Since then the U.S. has done little to mend fences with the military and demonstrated little understanding of the fact that Egypt had become a zero-sum game in which the only choices were the Brotherhood or the military. With the administration announcing a partial aid cutoff to the new government, what followed next was entirely predictable. Cairo turned to Moscow for help and for the first time since 1973 Russia has a foothold in the Arab world’s most populous nation as well as the one that, with the Suez Canal, holds its most strategic position.
It is true that Putin’s Russia doesn’t pose the same kind of threat to the West as the Soviet Union. But Putin’s efforts to regain influence in the Middle East, first via the preservation of the bloody Assad regime in Syria and now by elbowing the U.S. out of Egypt, is deeply troubling.
Some Americans, including libertarians who are intent on withdrawing from the war on Islamist terrorism, may see nothing wrong with abandoning the Middle East to Russia. But a Middle East where Russia has at least an equal say with the United States is one in which moderate Arab regimes as well as Israel will feel far less secure. Since Putin’s only goal is to discomfit the United States and to expand Russia’s influence, the result will give Iran, which is also celebrating the victory of Assad, confidence to continue its own brand of mischief making in the Persian Gulf, Lebanon, and with the Palestinians, especially if it resumes its alliance with Hamas. As I wrote back in October, an Obama administration policy that effectively discards Egypt is a victory for Russia as well as a blow to stability and peace.
But what is most infuriating about these developments is that none of it had to happen if the Obama administration had not mishandled relations with Egypt so badly. Though the hand it was dealt was by no means a good one, it is in the process of losing an asset that the U.S. had been able to count on for decades. The price of this incompetence will be felt by U.S. policymakers as well as the people of the region for years to come.