In a region noted for miracles — the survival of Israel, prosperous if beleaguered in a sea of hostile Arabs, is just a recent example — U.S. policy may well have to rely on prayer.
In the region’s current unrest, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced that possibility, woefully, observing recently that “we have only one choice: to trust that in the long arc of history those shared beliefs will matter more than the immediate disruptions that lie ahead and that, ultimately, our interests and ideals will be well served.”
To quote Keynes, though, in the long run we will all be dead.
The hard reality is that the Obama administration cannot continue to abdicate America’s responsibility, leaving a worldwide vacuum to be filled by every would-be amateur Metternich. Obviously, policy must be made in the face of many unanswered questions. But leadership requires sorting possibilities, and decision making often means accepting the best among poor options.
Of all the uncertainties facing Egypt’s future and indeed that of the whole Arab world, none is so mysterious as current U.S. policy.
The talking heads more or less confirm that Washington was unprepared for Cairo’s implosion. Granted, as some of us over 35 know, human events are largely unpredictable. Who could have guessed immolation by an unemployed vendor in tiny Tunisia, hardly respectable among the macho Arabs, would topple the dominoes?
But Egypt has long been notorious as a classically fragile Third World country. There was always potential drama in rising unemployment, underdeveloped or depleted natural resources and a tradition of thousands of years of bureaucratic malfeasance. Ruled by a highly personalized military dictatorship, the Egyptian state had no secure succession plan in place for the looming departure of its ailing 83-year-old president, Hosni Mubarak. Yet Cairo dominated the region culturally because of its size and its fossil-fuel resources critical to the U.S. and the world economies. Still, how could destabilization come as a surprise? Yes, the U.S. is in a period of overwhelming domestic focus. Fickle Washington is notoriously a one-issue theater — and the Obama administration is still winding down two wars. But could anyone really claim to be surprised?
The inevitable conclusion is that the American foreign policy establishment — in and out of government, for with the inside-the-Beltway revolving door, they are indistinguishable — is incompetent. The real question is, Why?
Groupthink dominates analysis. Fads and instant expertise — instead of the long, hard slog through history and anecdotal information — preclude originality. Even the Pentagon, supposedly noted for realism, bought into the most primitive “scientism”: the hypothesis that the scientific method could be applied to social problems. The Department of Defense spent tens of millions of dollars on “software” replacing the old crystal ball, the alchemist’s puttering, the soothsayers on Manhattan’s Second Avenue and the oracle of Delphi — but still failed to see this one coming.
Even now most media chatter trots out tired cliches. Basic problems are ignored or obfuscated. Not even the right questions are being posed. Here are a few:
• How is any Egyptian regime going to meet growing unemployment and unrest among an overwhelmingly young population? Will the new regime reverse the protectionist, corrupt Mubarak policies that inhibited foreign investment and technological transfer? (Read the labels: Prized Egyptian cotton is made into sheets, towels and shirts in India, China, Bangladesh — any place but Egypt!)
• Will fatuous rationalizations about Islam continue to dominate the U.S. discourse? No one, probably including the Muslim Brotherhood itself, knows the Islamists’ strength in the new environment. But can there be any doubt that a movement grounded in radical politics and primitive Islam threatens all modern values? Even if analyses arguing that the Brotherhood is currently ambivalent are correct, will the difficult days ahead not rekindle their original flame of fanaticism, as has happened elsewhere?
• With continued military dominance likely, how far have the jihadists penetrated the army’s lower echelons? Is a sergeants revolt likely — just as Nasser eventually came to dominate the original 1952 military coup, instituting a disastrous pan-Arab nationalism and a Soviet alliance? Doesn’t anyone remember that Anwar Sadat was assassinated during a military review by the Muslim Brotherhoods’ intellectual offspring in “borrowed” uniforms?
• Most important, what role can America actually play? Is it wise to continue making public statements, often contradicted within 24 hours? Wouldn’t a quieter diplomacy — if such can be conducted given Washington’s official blabbermouths and the enablers at WikiLeaks — be more effective? Given the history in places such as Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, isn’t the influence of the Pentagon on Egyptian military — despite the annual $1.5 billion aid bribe — questionable? Is America’s “soft power” even being mobilized?