The world is watching and waiting for President Obama.
Not long ago, I used this space to ask if the Arab Spring was like 2009 (the failed Twitter Revolution in Iran), 1989 (the democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe) or 1979 (the Islamist revolution in Iran). Like others, I believed the end of Mubarak’s autocratic rule was something to celebrate, but I worried that what ultimately replaces Mubarak may not be worth celebrating. And sadly, a year later, elements of the Arab Spring are starting to resemble 1979, as evidenced by the brewing hostage crisis in Egypt.
Nineteen American citizens working for well-known and well-established nonprofit groups are being held on trumped-up charges that they tried to destabilize Egypt. Their offices were raided in late December, some are holed up in the U.S. embassy and all of them have been barred from flying out of Egypt. As Time magazine notes, December is significant. December is when Congress passed a number of conditions for aid to the Egyptian military, including proving a “commitment to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, progress toward democratic reforms, and the protection of free expression, association and religion.” Not only are the last two of those conditions not being met by Egypt, but Time adds that Cairo’s case against the Americans is “propagated by the military-led regime.”
That’s also an important part of the story. To its credit, the Egyptian military played a key role in persuading Mubarak to cede power, and in preventing Egypt from careening into chaos. The Egyptian military is now trying to serve as something of a referee/power broker/king-maker. Up until this crisis, Washington recognized that while having the Egyptian military in charge is not ideal, it may be necessary to hold the political pieces together in Egypt. But if this is how the “responsible” parties in post-Mubarak Egypt are going to treat Americans, then it’s time to reevaluate everything about this interests-based relationship. Hopefully, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey is conveying that very message in his talks in Cairo.
The clear, unambiguous and indeed private message should be threefold:
• The U.S. aid spigot—an average of $2 billion per year since 1979—will be shut off if these hostages aren’t freed and if post-Mubarak Egypt continues to resemble post-Shah Iran. As Time puts it, “if Egypt’s generals get away with the NGO crackdown and the political humiliation of its biggest foreign benefactor, it’s going to set a dangerous precedent for other regimes testing the waters of democracy.”
• The United States is prepared to radically rethink its security posture and force structure in the region. There are many other countries in the region that will take U.S. aid dollars and assist the U.S. in protecting its strategic interests.
• U.S. force will be employed if American interests or citizens are again threatened. Washington cannot allow another far-off revolution to hold America hostage.
Of course, it is the administration’s lack of clarity, lack of consistency and lack of commitment at times that has contributed to this situation. After all, the administration offered an extended hand to Tehran, averted its gaze from Iran’s pro-freedom revolution, initially supported Mubarak and then threw him under the bus, “led from behind” in Libya in a halfhearted war that had an expiration date for U.S. involvement, sat silent far too long regarding Syria and then inexplicably did nothing to end Assad’s reign, abruptly yanked U.S. forces out of Iraq, and recently sped up the timetable for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
These actions and non-actions send signals to the generals in Cairo and Islamabad, to the tyrants in Tehran and Pyongyang, to the guerillas and jihadists who roam earth, to the business-suit autocrats in Moscow and Beijing.
Make no mistake: the president is not to blame for the hostages being taken, just as President Carter wasn’t to blame for the Iranian hostage crisis. The hostage-takers, the thugs, the enemies of freedom bear that responsibility. But presidents are responsible for how their administrations respond to crises like this.
For months, Carter did nothing of substance in response to the embassy takeover, and when he tried to do something it proved worse than nothing. President Obama has said little and done nothing, at least not in public view, regarding the Cairo crisis. Perhaps he is working behind the scenes. Perhaps he is trusting Gen. Demsey to deliver the message. Either way, the world is watching and waiting.
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