The case for putting our strategic interests first in Egypt

Max Boot argues that the Obama administration should “let the Brotherhood rule in Egypt.” Boot acknowledges, and I agree, that President Obama faces a difficult choice here because “the American interest in democracy appears, in this case, to be at odds with our strategic interest, which is working with the Egyptian military, as we have since the 1970s, rather than trying to deal with the anti-Western, anti-Israel Brotherhood.”

But to state the question this way is to suggest the answer. There should be a strong presumption in favor of upholding our strategic interest rather than our interest in promoting democracy in this or that foreign country, where the two interests conflict. In other words, our interest in our own security, and that of our close allies, should trump our desire to promote democracy in countries with which we have no strong attachment. And this is especially true where, as with Egypt, (a) promoting democracy will undermine whatever attachment we have to the country in question because the democratically elected party is our bitter enemy and (b) the elected party’s platform obviously bodes ill for the country in question.

Boot says that the Egyptian generals “are claiming to save the people from the messy untidiness of democracy.” Messy untidiness was the Florida recount controversy in the 2000 presidential election. We’re talking about something quite different here – the takeover of Egypt by sinister forces and the possible creation of “an Iranian-style theocracy,” as Boot more appropriately characterizes the problem elsewhere in his piece.

Boot argues that “the best bet in the long run for weakening Brotherhood authority would be to allow it to rule.” That case can be made, but its strength depends on the meaning of “long run.” For there is no guarantee that the Muslim Brotherhood will be punished by voters anytime soon. First, we shouldn’t assume that voters will have that opportunity. If the Brotherhood seizes the levers of power, how do we know it will countenance fair elections in the future if the democratic tide turns against it? We certainly can’t depend on the democratic instincts of the Brotherhood itself; it didn’t want elections in the first place.

Nor should we depend on the military to act as the protector of democracy in the future. The military’s power is probably at its greatest now. The generals may well become demoralized and subject to increased attack (e.g., show trials of generals) if they back down now in the face of U.S. pressure.

Second, we shouldn’t assume that even if democracy persists, it will produce non-Islamist governments anytime soon. Ideology can trump administrative failure for decades. That’s what occurred in India, for example, where the left-wing faction of the Congress Party held power seemingly forever, notwithstanding the ineffectiveness of its socialist policies. Indeed, this story was repeated, more or less, in many third world countries in the early decades of the post-colonial era.

Finally, we shouldn’t assume that the Obama administration can force the Egyptian military to back down. Boot points out that we provide $1.3 billion in military aid every year. That amount of money can buy plenty of leverage, to be sure. But if the Egyptian military has concluded that Muslim Brotherhood rule will be ruinous for Egypt and/or for the military itself, then its best option is to forego the money for a while and take the action it deems necessary now.

If the Obama administration threatens to cut off aid, it must be prepared actually to cut it off. And if it does, the U.S. will cease to be a player in Egypt, a country of major strategic importance.

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