U.S. intervention in Egypt is not the solution

Walter Pincus
Reporter August 21, 2013

“Our ability to influence the outcome in Egypt is limited.”

That was Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaking truth about power to reporters Monday.

He went on: “It’s up to the Egyptian people. And they are a large, great, sovereign nation. And it will be their responsibility . . . to sort this out. All nations are limited in their influence in another nation’s internal issues.”

Can the American people begin to understand that even the most powerful country in the world — which the United States is both militarily and financially — still cannot control other countries?

Go back to the post-World War II era, when for a period the United States did control what went on in other countries.

Monday marked the 60th anniversary of the United States exercising its dominance when it engineered, with the British, the overthrow of the elected Iranian government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq.

An internal CIA report titled “The Battle for Iran,” which was first made public in redacted form in 1981, was made public again Monday by George Washington University’s National Security Archive, but with less material blacked out.

“The military coup that overthrew Mossadeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy,” the report reads. The risk of leaving Iran “open to Soviet aggression,” it adds, “compelled the United States” to act.

An undated agency draft titled “Campaign to Install a Pro-Western Government in Iran” described the objectives: “Through legal or quasi-legal methods to affect the fall of the Mossadeq government; and to replace it with a pro-Western government under the Shah’s leadership with [Fazlollah] Zahedi as his Prime Minister.”

One phase of the plan in this draft was to “disenchant the Iranian population with the myth of Mossadeq’s patriotism by exposing his collaboration with the Communists and his manipulation of constitutional authority to serve his own personal ambitions for power.”

Another element was “to conduct a ‘war of nerves’ . . . designed to reveal to Mossadeq and to the general populace that increased American economic aid will not be forthcoming and that the U.S. viewed with alarm Mossadeq’s policies.”

Over the long term, similar U.S. Cold War actions in Guatemala, Cuba, Vietnam and Nicaragua have overall had a negative effect.

The limits of exercising power and influence have become apparent.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Afghan President Hamid Karzai are the most recent examples that prove even when the United States helps choose a nation’s leaders and provides arms and financial aid initially to support them, they eventually will act in what they believe are their own best interests, regardless of what Washington may think.

In 2011, the Obama administration was criticized for supporting Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak for too long when the Arab Spring generated public opposition to his rule. The White House was then criticized for supporting Mohamed Morsi’s election because of his Muslim Brotherhood connection and for continuing that support as protests mounted against him. Now critics knock the administration for not cutting off assistance to the regime for its attacks on Brotherhood members and their civilian backers.

In almost every circumstance, there were groups, people claiming to be experts and even politicians in this country who voiced a different view: The United States should help keep Mubarak in power, not accept Morsi because of his political connections, and now support the Egyptian military.

The real question is how much do Americans know or care about Egypt? According to a Pew Research Center poll released Monday, the answers to both questions are “not much.”

“About half of Americans (48 percent) say they are following news from Egypt not too closely or not at all closely,” Pew reported. In fact, less than half that number, ­­22 percent of those polled last week, said they are following news about violence in Egypt very closely.

Just as interesting is the mixed views of those polled about the current situation. While 51 percent said they wanted U.S. military aid to Egypt cut off to put pressure on the government, “45 percent say the military could provide better leadership, compared with ­11 percent who say the Muslim Brotherhood.” The other 44 percent of those polled split, with 19 percent saying “neither side can better lead Egypt, while 25 percent say they don’t know,” Pew said.

The Obama administration has been limiting military aid to Egypt while using back channels to press the message that the Cairo regime should change course. Last month, delivery of U.S. F-16 fighters was suspended; more recently, a joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercise was canceled; and soon, a shipment of 12 helicopters will be delayed. About $585 million in military aid to Egypt remains to be spent before Sept. 30, much of which would go to U.S. military contractors. That funding is under review, the State Department said.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) insisted: “There is no policy, and there is no strategy. And therefore, we react and we react poorly.”

It’s true this country mostly reacts when it comes to foreign policy. It’s what we did in World War I, World War II and Korea.

Iran in 1953, Cuba and Vietnam in 1961 and Iraq in 2003 are examples of instances in which Washington took the initiative to try to influence the makeup of a foreign government. We know how those efforts turned out.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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