It’s not often that the United States has the obligation, or the opportunity, to completely remake its relationship with one of the world’s major nations. Usually, for better or for worse, ties are locked in by history, perpetuated by enduring elites, and defended by powerful lobbies. Even bad policies are hard to change.
Now, however, Washington has no choice but to rebuild its connection with Egypt — the most populous and historically most important Arab nation, the owner of the Suez Canal and a prime U.S. ally for more than 40 years. It is a daunting, even scary prospect for the State Department and Obama White House. But it is also offers a chance to correct some of the mistakes America has made for decades in its dealings with Arab leaders. The remake launches this week when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visits Cairo.
The Post’s deputy editorial page editor, Diehl also writes a biweekly foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.
The need for a revamp has been obvious for some time, but it became imperative last month when Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, won Egypt’s first free election for president. Up until then, and despite Egypt’s popular revolution last year, U.S. policy had centered on the powerful military and the succession of pharaoh-like leaders it backed. Year after year, strategic allegiance and peace with Israel was purchased with $1.5 billion in annual military and economic aid.
Now it gets complicated. For the foreseeable future, U.S. officials will have to navigate between Morsi and the Brotherhood, with their nominally democratic but fundamentally anti-Western agenda; the military, which is doing its best to block the creation of democratic institutions while preserving its lifelines with the Pentagon and Israel; and the secular democratic forces that led last year’s revolution, which are broadly pro-Western but are squeezed by both the generals and the clerics.
A successful walk along this tightrope could preserve Egypt as a core U.S. ally and peaceful neighbor of Israel while transforming it into a functional democracy — something that would make both those roles more stable. Or, Egypt could become the world’s next Pakistan, a country riven between incompetent and corrupt civilian politicians and double-dealing military commanders.
The Obama administration’s first two steps in this acrobacy managed to alienate and confuse all sides. First, in March, it waived congressional conditions on this year’s military aid that required the generals to complete a democratic transition — something that may have encouraged the military’s subsequent dismissal of the elected Congress and usurpation of the new president’s powers. Egyptian democrats felt betrayed.
But then last month the administration leaned heavily on the ruling military council to recognize Morsi’s victory in a runoff election. Lobbying by Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta may have prevented the council from handing the presidency to its favored candidate, a former prime minister. But it infuriated the generals, Egyptian Christians and some U.S. supporters of Israel, who fear the Islamists more than the old regime.