Who doesn’t love analytical analogies—situations past that bear a resemblance to current circumstances and might offer at least a little usable insight.
The current state of Egypt, like many situations in the new global age, is a bit sui generis—a unique thing of its own that we neither know how to classify or handle. For some, it is like going to watch a sports competition where you don’t exactly understand the game, don’t know nearly enough about the teams, and yet are being expected to choose sides—to root for somebody.
Here are a few of what we might call impressionistic analogies: examples from recent history that won’t withstand close scrutiny as directly related scenarios, but do have a certain similarity that at least gives us food for thought.
Iran – The impending release of Mubarek by the military government—ostensibly because the fraud case leading to his arrest would not hold up—brings to mind Iran and the last Shah. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 deposed the Shah and ended the West-friendly dynasty that the U.S. had long supported. One of the small but historically high-profile early incidents was President Jimmy Carter allowing the very ill Shah to seek medical help here in 1980—a factor in the subsequent hostage-taking, that in turn was (just one) of the reasons that Carter was not re-elected.
The U.S. is not alone in having to bet on somebody in turbulent times. Leaders are both real and symbolic in these contests. In Iran, our betting on the Shah—who was like us, who we understood, and who wss not like “them”—has proven disastrous. In the case of Mubarek in Egypt, what we wanted with him all those years was stability and moderation, but when it became apparent during the Arab Spring that we were looking decidedly anti-democratic, we opted to cut him loose and hope for democracy to follow. When that democracy started looking theocratic, possibly militantly so (Muslim Brotherhood), we were very confused and concerned—and so were the remnants of Mubarekism still in or near power. Military and stability or democracy and “adventure”. The Egyptian military made their decision, but we seem unable to decide. Will the military try to re-install Mubarek, or just leave him as a symbol of better days. Do we wish that we had handled Iran better, maybe helping to ease out the Shah and autocratic rule? It probably would not have prevented theocracy, but we didn’t try.
Iraq – Iraq, like Egypt, is another example of wanting to act strategically, while looking like the “good guy” and trying to figure out what a good guy looks like or acts like in these times. We supported Saddam Hussein, we refused to topple him, we toppled him, we executed him. All hell broke loose, and that fire may burn for generations. Whatever our skill at playing a real-world version of Risk globally, our track record in the Middle East is atrocious. At this point, we may want to consider where we stand relative to the historic record of the British and the French. (Note: We seem to have a bizarre predilection for following in their footsteps with little more, or even less, success than they had. See, e.g, Vietnam, Afghanistan, etc.)
Latin America – Our experiences in Latin America may serve as the most interesting of these tenuous analogies. The policy and history is easy to understand. We feared (still do) the incursion of Communism into the continent. We would support just about anybody who promised to keep the threat of socialism/Communism down. This put us in bed with a very bad lot, alliances that have had two lasting impacts. American fingerprints are all over the legacy of some despicable regimes. And now that many of those regimes are in the dustbin of history, residual anti-Americanism lingers on.
None of these alone, or even taken together, may offer much guidance in figuring out what to do in Egypt. Maybe a general lesson is that being powerful is not the same as being smart or being right. Maybe it’s that America is not as powerful as it thinks—back then, or even more so now—in a world it does not fully understand (again, ask the British and the French).
Egypt today is not that different from Egypt two years ago, or Syria now, or Iran or Iraq or Latin America. America has to expressly define and transparently decide how to stack our values and principles. Do we want American-style democracy or are we willing to settle for one of its other versions? Do we want democracy no matter what the results, or are we willing to trade democracy for authoritarian rule? Is authoritarian rule better than democratic or quasi-democratic Islamism, socialism or Communism? What is regional or global stability worth? What is peace worth? What is a Syrian or Egyptian or American life worth? Could billions in Egyptian aid, aside from whether or not we continue or suspend it, be better used to help Americans in an age of sequestration and austerity?
Grown up questions for grownups at the table.