Last week, various press organizations were agog at the news that Israel and the Obama Administration were at odds over Egypt in the wake of the military ouster of the elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi. Israel, the New York Times reported, in league with the Gulf States, was supporting “the Egyptian military and sought to push back against Western entreaties that it temper its actions against the Brotherhood.”
The first notable thing about reports of Israel’s sexy new alliance with the Saudis and Kuwaitis against Barack Obama is that they were wrong—because Israel supports no Egyptian government or leader. Rather, Jerusalem backs the peace treaty it has had with Cairo for more than three decades. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained last month, the peace treaty has “been the cornerstone of peace between us and our neighbors, and it’s also been the cornerstone of stability in the Middle East.” Israel backed the peace treaty when Morsi was in power, so it’s hardly unusual it should stick to supporting the treaty—and any Egyptian government that supports the treaty—now that the army is calling the shots.
By chasing after a story in which Israel would prove to be the hidden hand behind Egyptian troops shooting Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the streets, American news organizations wound up echoing a pro-Muslim Brotherhood propaganda line in which Gen. Sisi himself was a Zionist agent “implementing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Egypt.” They also missed a story that, while less sexy, had the advantage of being real—namely, the split within the Republican Party on whether to back Sisi or not. In the debate over Egypt policy, former policymakers, analysts, and journalists are still hashing out the legacy of George W. Bush’s Middle East policy and whether or not the Freedom Agenda was a good idea or a waste of American lives and money.
On one side of the debate are a number of writers who see American interests as the sole legitimate force animating U.S. policy. Charles Krauthammer, Bret Stephens, David Goldman, and other “realists” argue that Egypt is a zero-sum game in which you have to choose either the army or the Muslim Brotherhood—and that American interests are best served by the former. The White House, argues Walter Russell Mead, “needs to devote more attention to the concerns of the Egyptian generals.”
On the other side of the debate are proponents of the neoconservative position, who see American values as essential to formulating policy in line with the character of the United States. Elliott Abrams and Robert Kagan argue that continuing to fund an army that deposed an elected leader and is now responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Egyptians is at odds with American law and our principles. Max Boot and Reuel Marc Gerecht contend that the army’s violent campaign will backfire, causing tremendous damage to Egypt and also harming American interests.
Both the realists and the neocons have valid points. After the Iraq war, it’s not difficult to see why the right no longer wants to own democracy promotion and believes that Obama should back off his previous advocacy of the Brotherhood’s moderate tendencies. So, what if the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in a free election? So did Hamas in Gaza, and so did Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki—who, by arrogating virtually dictatorial powers for himself, has set his country on a course for a renewal of sectarian warfare. The healthiest position for America to take now would be to oppose anyone with long beards and a prayer mark on their forehead, irrespective of how they attained power.
The counterargument is also sound: Precisely because the Middle East is an obvious mess, we need to make a long-term investment in thickening democratic practice and culture—or else Washington will find it increasingly hard to advance its interests. At the very least, argue Abrams and Kagan in advocating suspending aid, we can show the Egyptians how a real democratic country behaves, namely by observing its own laws, which in the case of the United States forbid continued aid to the coup leaders. The Egyptians who turned against Morsi, as they turned against Mubarak, are likely to someday turn against the army, too. Democracy, from this perspective, isn’t wishy-washy but takes the long-term view: You might not like the results of the next elections, or the next five elections, but eventually you’ll have enough people who at least recognize that a military coup is not a part of democratic practice.
The reason the freedom agenda is still a live issue, even after Iraq, says Michael Doran, a former Bush White House aide, comes down to the character of the United States. “We are a nation whose identity is based not on ethnicity but, rather, on ideals. A purely ‘realist’ policy will never be adopted by any president of the United States,” says Doran, author of a forthcoming book on Eisenhower’s Middle East policy. “All of the presidents described as realists—Eisenhower, Nixon, George H. W. Bush—at one point or another, affirmed the American commitment to democracy and human rights.”
A friend of mine put it a different way: Nations have differing ego boundaries, just like people do. The ego boundaries of the United States are very broad. Unlike Greeks or Egyptians, Americans don’t quite know where America begins and where it stops. It’s a Manifest Destiny of the spirit, a version that sees America not gobbling up land but winning over minds to our beliefs. Our expansive ego-boundaries and tendency toward enmeshment are among our strengths as a people but are not a good foundation for geo-strategic thinking. Given our belief that the right to life, liberty, and happiness are part of the universal endowment of mankind, it is hardly surprising that Americans don’t quite understand why the rest of the world isn’t like us—and often doesn’t want to be like us.
That’s precisely the problem with the freedom agenda, say some. The Middle East is not like America and not ready for democracy, says Joshua Mitchell, author of the recently published Tocqueville in Arabia. “I’d love it if democratic government worked in the Middle East, but I don’t think it will for a very long time,” Mitchell said. “The region is ripped apart, and held together, by deep family allegiances and by political patronage. People don’t yet think of themselves as individuated persons, and both democracy and free-market capitalism are predicated on the idea of individuated persons. We saw some evidence of that changing at Tahrir Square in Cairo; during the 2011 uprising some of the protesters seemed to have a sense of themselves as being individuated and eager and ready for democratic government. But on the whole, the entire region is filled with people who still oscillate between these two things—an orientation to family and individuation. It was enough to topple a dictator, but not enough to build a world.”
The sticking point is that America has built a world and even the Middle Easterners who don’t understand how we made it work, and who have repeatedly fumbled their chances at their own versions of the American Dream, still say they want something like it. That’s why they elected Morsi and why, in demanding the army topple him, they rationalized they were preserving democracy. Americans, as the debate over Egypt shows, are also torn—whether to slowly and patiently teach the Arabs the fundamentals of a democratic political culture, or to stand aside and let them kill each other instead.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).