Why Washington Will Have No Allies in Egypt

Mohamed ElBaradei may sound like an ideal American partner, but he's not the answer.

Mohamed ElBaradei (Reuters)

Let's get one thing straight: America will likely have no "allies" in the new Egyptian government, no matter who emerges on top. There has been much hopefulness, for example, surrounding the on-again, off-again plans to appoint Mohamed ElBaradei, the Westernized and well-spoken former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as interim prime minister. But ElBaradei, during his 12 years as IAEA chief, proved a constant irritation to Washington, and in 2011 even urged an international criminal investigation of George W. Bush and his top officials over their "needless war" in Iraq.

That latter criticism may not be unreasonable, given the now-incontrovertible evidence that Bush did launch a disastrous, bloody war on false grounds, and that ElBaradei, among others, had proof of this before the March 2003 invasion (the IAEA was being granted unrestricted access to Saddam Hussein's sites at the time, and ElBaradei knew that no WMD had been found). During the last decade a defiant ElBaradei was also often the voice of reason on Iran's nuclear ambitions--to the outrage of the Bush administration--cautioning in 2007 that he had seen no evidence of "an active weaponization program" (again, he was later vindicated by a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate).

But the larger point is that ElBaradei, no matter how comparatively favorable he may look now as a secular technocrat (particularly against radical Islamist alternatives), is never going to be "America's guy" in Cairo. As the future of Egypt hangs in the balance, neither ElBaradei nor the odd mix of authoritarian-democratic voices emerging in Egypt and the Arab world have any patience for Washington's meddling. They are largely beyond our control and will stay that way.

Despite the debate going on in Washington over what the Obama administration could or should do to shape the outcome, we're kidding ourselves if we think we can do more than affect things on the margins, even with $1 billion-plus in aid as "leverage." The Egyptian army's ouster of Mohamed Morsi, Robert Satloff wrote in The Washington Post last week, "gives the Obama administration that rarest of opportunities in foreign policy: a second chance."

Not really. This is, for the most part, a silly, trumped-up discussion. Certainly, the administration could have done a better job of standing up for its principles consistently during the two-and-a-half-year course of the "Arab Spring." Though U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson presciently warned ousted President Mohamed Morsi, in a speech back in February, that he was on the verge of failing economically and politically, she also became the Messenger of Hedged Bets, finding herself blamed on both the secular and Islamist sides for trying to work with both. In this Patterson was only reflecting the wishes of President Obama, who appeared to support Morsi in the shallow, realpolitik way he once dealt with Hosni Mubarak--seeking to cultivate a friendly government-to-government alliance while paying lip service to democracy and human rights.

But that was really just more of the same American confusion. And frankly, it's not all Obama's fault. He, like his predecessors, is trying to resolve the direct contradiction between America's current interests as the globe's only stabilizing superpower and America's historical role as the globe's foremost champion of democracy and universal rights. On one hand, as the overseer of a stable international system, the United States has become largely a nation of, by and for the status quo. But too often we find that, as in the Arab world, the opponents of the status quo are quoting our own ideals back to us. In June 2002, for example, Bush declared that democracy was the answer to the ills in the Palestinian territories; when Hamas won the elections four years later, Washington discovered that it had inadvertently set into motion utter paralysis of the peace process. In 2003, America launched a war to set up a model Arab democracy, only to find that in the civil war and possible partitioning of Iraq (and possibly Syria too), participants like the Kurds have rediscovered Woodrow Wilson's promise of self-determination from nearly a century ago. Thus the further fissuring of the old Middle East - which will almost certainly lead to more bloodshed -- may be fueled too by American ideals.

All this is happening because, to an odd degree, America is a victim of its own success. In the last century the United States did an admirable job of vanquishing fascism and spending (most) communist regimes out of existence. We succeeded not just because we were militarily or economically stronger, but because we prided ourselves on having stronger ideas. Not only did we want to defeat our enemies; we insisted they adopt our philosophy as well, pursuing what Henry Kissinger once called the "age-old American dream of a peace achieved by the conversion of the adversary." But now American ideas, having saturated the globe as much as McDonald's hamburgers and Disney movies, are coming back to haunt U.S. policy-makers, democracy foremost among them. It is a kind of ideological blowback.

Yes, there is a lot to the thrashed-out idea that democracies, in the long run, don't make war on each other, that the more democratic the Arab world becomes, the more likely it is to integrate with the global economy, and that all this will be good for the United States. In the long run. Let's hope that happens, though it may take decades. But if it does, we will have little to do with it.