As modernity continues to lap up against the brittle regimes of the Middle East—with Tunisians ousting a dictator who had ruled them for a quarter-century, Jordanians and Yemenis in the streets, Lebanon caught somewhere between anarchy and a terror-ocracy, and Cairo in chaos—the central question for Washington is this: Are we witnessing a replay of 1979 (but on a region-wide scale), 1989 (and if so, which part of that pivot-point year) or 2009? Knowing—or at least surmising—which kind of revolution this is will offer something of a playbook to the administration and help determine a course of action for American foreign policy.
That said, the revolutionaries or reformers won’t necessarily follow that same playbook. For all their showy self-assurance, President Barack Obama and his foreign-policy team are learning that Washington cannot control events in faraway lands with a speech or a Nobel Peace Prize or a poli-sci presentation of how things should be in a perfect world. Being president is often about reacting to unwelcome surprises and then choosing the least bad option.
So, if this is a replay of 1979, when a frenzied mob took over Iran, invaded the U.S. embassy grounds, took Americans hostage and installed a theocratic dictator—all partly related to America’s long-term support for another dictator—the administration must be ready to react forcefully. There are worrisome similarities to 1979 that could emerge in Egypt: suppressed political-religious groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, could seize power and create a bona fide terrorist state astride the Med and Suez; the U.S. has propped up Mubarak’s hated regime for 30 years; and there are lots of Americans and American interests in Egypt. If those interests or those citizens are threatened or harmed, U.S. force should be immediately employed to answer the threat and/or act of aggression. Better still, before some Tehran-style embassy crisis even happens, Washington’s considerable military contacts with the Egyptian military should send a firm warning to that effect.
Then, if Egypt is in fact Islamicized, the Obama administration and its successor would be able to deal with the “Islamic Republic of Egypt” in a dispassionate manner, unencumbered by concerns over protecting innocent American hostages. Make no mistake, an Arab version of Iran would be an incredible long-term headache for Washington, but depriving such a regime of an opportunity to hold the United States hostage, a la Ayatollah Khomeini’s 444-day humiliation of America, would be a critical near-term objective. Longer-term strategic objectives under this scenario would include ensuring the flow of goods (especially oil) through the Suez and ensuring Israel’s security.
To that point, Egypt has appeared, at least from 5,800 miles away, to veer close to chaos and even collapse these last several days. If Egypt’s own government institutions—the military and the police—fail to maintain internal order, protect life and property, and/or keep the Suez Canal operating, there will be a call for some type of international intervention. And as the world’s first responders, the U.S. military will get that call. Obama will then have to make a very tough call.
If Washington views this as something more akin to 1989, the first step is to determine which part of 1989 this revolution is paralleling. If it’s like 1989 in Europe—when the people of Eastern Europe threw off their communist rulers, and those rulers, happily, lost the nerve they had in 1956, 1968 and 1981—then Obama should follow the example of President George H.W. Bush.
Bush supported the freedom movement with words and acted with caution so as not to undermine Gorbachev or invite a crackdown. To be sure, Bush had his critics. Some in his administration, in the midst of the revolution, advised him to go to Berlin to close the chapter Kennedy and Reagan began. Some in Congress called on him to go “dance on the Wall,” as he recalls in A World Transformed. But as Bush recognized, that “would have poured gasoline on the embers.”
Instead, he expressed support, encouraged the reformers and hedged his bets in case the revolution veered out of control. The result of his deft public and private diplomacy was unthinkable: the peaceful dissolution of communist dictatorship in Europe, the peaceful reunification of Germany and ultimately the peaceful end of the Soviet Union and its empire.
As David Halberstam later put it in War in a Time of Peace, “In those turbulent, unpredictable days—dangerous because this was the last gasp of a dark empire, and old adversaries are often most dangerous in their dying moments—Bush and his team seemed to have perfect pitch.”
However, Obama should not follow Bush’s example on China. It was also in 1989 that Chinese students, spurred by events in Europe, took to the streets of Beijing to call for freedom. They held peaceful protests for democratic change, and in effect occupied a large swath of Tiananmen Square. When the military was ordered to disperse them, several units actually mutinied. The PRC brought in crack troops from far away to clear the protests. Thousands were killed.
Regrettably, rather than distancing America from China, Bush secretly dispatched Brent Scowcroft days later to mollify the men who turned Tiananmen red with blood and make sure Beijing understood that the fulminations of Congress didn’t reflect the administration’s China policy.
In other words, if the old dictators hold on in the Middle East—or if new dictators replace the old—the United States need not reach out to them or seek to understand them or smooth things over. Let them reach out to us. Let them seek to understand us. Let them make changes that will smooth things over with us.
That brings us to 2009, when Obama had his first chance to support the democrats of the Middle East. Iran was on the verge of a full-fledged counter-revolution that summer. Unlike in Egypt today, or China in 1989, there was no need for realpolitik calculations or cost-benefit comparisons about what we owed the Iranian government due to past partnerships or what the Iranian government could deliver down the road, because there was no relationship with the Iranian government. Yet Obama’s response to the Twitter Revolution was cold, calculating and largely silent. After days of saying nothing, he meekly promised to “bear witness” to the brutal crackdown that ultimately squashed Iran’s freedom movement. Obama had answered his own rhetorical question of a year before: “Will we stand for the human rights of…the blogger in Iran?”
At least the elder Bush could argue that Scowcroft’s secret trip to China kept the imports flowing. America got nothing for averting its gaze during Iran’s crackdown.
Obama can yet recover from his administration’s pathetic initial response to the stirrings of change in Egypt, and in doing so help rehabilitate the administration’s image as aloof or indifferent to the spread of freedom in the Middle East.
After the administration’s initial pro-Mubarak gaffs, Secretary of State Clinton is pointing in the right direction: “We want to see a transition to democracy, and we want to see the kind of steps taken that will bring that about. We also want to see an orderly transition.”
The revolutions of the past 30 years remind us that a president can’t control how these transitions unfold. But he can control how America reacts to them.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security.
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