Obama Sending Mixed Messages on Egypt

Wednesday, 09 Feb 2011 08:25 AM

By Herbert London

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A million people are standing in Tahrir Square in Cairo protesting against the government and arguing Hosni Mubarak must go.

The military, representing the most stabilizing influence in Egypt, has immersed itself in the protest, at least to some indeterminate degree.

The nation’s most notorious prisons have been emptied of criminals and Islamic extremists and roving bands have destroyed art treasures and looted private property.

While words of freedom and liberty are in the air, there is the distinct danger that these protests could result in less freedom for Egyptians than what they have known, especially if those who harbor Islamist goals (read: the Muslim Brotherhood) gain a foothold in government.

Despite the confusion surrounding these protests, Foggy Bottom was completely blindsided. On one occasion Secretary Clinton said, “Mubarak is a friend.” On another occasion Vice President Biden denied Mubarak is a dictator. But as the protests persisted, Washington’s tone changed. Now the State Department refers to an “orderly transition” to “a democratic, participatory government.”

But there is still not an unequivocal call for liberty consistent with the president’s Cairo speech. In fact, President Obama has put a greater emphasis on engagement than freedom as his tactics with the Iranian government suggest.

Admittedly a democratic election in Egypt could result in one vote, one time with the Muslim Brotherhood gaining control and, like their Hamas cousins, institute religious dominance of the nation.

Of course, not everyone views the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat. Bruce Riedel, at the Brookings Institution, argues the Brotherhood might be troublesome, but not a cause for anxiety.

This position overlooks the Brotherhood’s basic attitude to subjugate women and the threat to the 30-year peace with Israel.

As I see it, Brotherhood power in Egypt, even if exercised behind the political curtain, would be calamitous for U.S. interests in the region. For the Brotherhood, violence is justified when it is consistent with the cause and that cause is jihad. History is written in blood, not Western law.

In 2007, so-called reform-minded leaders argued that all government decisions must be vetted to ensure they are consistent with Islamic law.

However, it is not clear how much influence the Muslim Brotherhood has among the protestors or the military forces or even among the people.

Therefore, keeping your powder dry seems a reasonable position until the movement of historical forces carries ti away on the tide of change.

The problem, at the moment, is it is not clear what the Obama administration has in mind. On one hand, it is calling for stability which could be interpreted as endorsing Mubarak; on the other, it is continually making reference to “transition,” which suggests Mubarak must be ousted.

Clearly the U.S. wants or should want a stable, civil society in Egypt that is aligned with U.S. regional interests. If that is not possible, the U.S. should curtail its economic and military assistance in excess of $1 billion and bolster the only enduring democracy in the Middle East neighborhood, Israel.

Should Egypt become dominated by extremist forces, the likelihood of war increases and the resultant chaos will work to the advantage of Iran. Even though a Persian nation distrusted by Arabs and a Shia state distrusted by Sunnis, Iran is the strong horse in the region that garners support through its messianic belief in violence.

If the evolving Egyptians story reveals anything, it is how destabilizing a weak and ineffectual U.S. can be. At another time in the distant past, the U.S. would have recognized its interests and know exactly what it must do to secure stability. This, however, is not that time, and the U.S. no longer recognizes its strategic interests or how to protect them.

Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute and author of the book "Decline and Revival in Higher Education" (Transaction Publishers).

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