Thursday, May 7, 2009;
DEFENSE SECRETARY Robert M. Gates earned modest headlines in the United States this week for playing down the possibility of a "grand bargain" with Iran after a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But al-Jazeera, the leading media outlet of the Arab Middle East, focused on an entirely different piece of news out of Mr. Gates's Cairo news conference. Asked whether U.S. aid to Egypt would be linked in the future to democracy or human rights, the Pentagon chief answered that "foreign military financing" for Mr. Mubarak's autocracy "should be without conditions. And that is our sustained position."
The Obama administration, which has rushed to embrace Egypt's 81-year-old strongman, would do well to consider why al-Jazeera -- not known for pro-American sympathies -- would choose to trumpet that report. The Obama administration's policy assumes that the Bush administration's attempts to promote democratic reforms in Egypt produced yet another case of damaged ties and bad public relations to remedy, such as Guantanamo Bay or the war in Iraq. So Mr. Gates, like Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton before him, heaped praise on Mr. Mubarak while making clear that the new administration will not trouble him about his systematic and often violent repression of the country's liberal politicians, bloggers and human rights activists.
Yet, as al-Jazeera well understands, Mr. Mubarak and his fellow Arab autocrats are widely despised across the region -- and the United States is blamed for unconditionally propping them up. In fact, Mr. Bush won credit from many Egyptians for pressing for democratic change; he was criticized because he failed to follow through. Now, Arabs around the region are learning that the Obama administration is returning to the old U.S. policy of ignoring human rights abuses by Arab dictators in exchange for their cooperation on security matters -- that is, the same policy that produced the Middle East of Osama bin Laden, Hamas and Saddam Hussein.
The pullback is not only rhetorical. Funding for democracy promotion in Egypt has been slashed from $50 million to $20 million this year. The State Department has agreed to Egyptian demands not to use economic aid to fund civil society organizations not approved by the government. As a result, U.S. funding for pro-democracy and human rights groups will drop by about 70 percent. Meanwhile, Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee this week inserted $260 million in fresh security assistance for Egypt into a supplemental appropriations bill, along with $50 million for border security. No conditions were attached.
What will all this appeasement buy from Mr. Mubarak? The Egyptian ruler continues to pledge to stop arms trafficking to Hamas in Gaza, and to fail to do so. He keeps a cold peace with Israel, withholds an ambassador from Iraq and, as Mr. Gates tacitly acknowledged, opposes any broad rapprochement between the United States and Iran. He is grooming his son to succeed him, a step that could entrench Egypt's autocracy for decades more -- or maybe produce an Islamic revolution. Does all that really merit unconditional U.S. support?