Lose-lose politics and policy on Egypt

 I have some sympathy for an Obama administration that seems paralyzed by indecision as Egyptians rise up in the streets against their corrupt, repressive regime; President Obama is paying the long-deferred price for decades of hypocritical policy.

But this administration is no more innocent than its predecessors; it, too, chose to proclaim the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak a critical ally in the Middle East, and mostly swallow concerns about his anti-democratic nature and his sorry human rights record in the interests of foreign policy realism.

Well, that realism is looking like a real mess now.

We’ve worked ourselves into a position where we’re paralyzed by the conflict between our fear that Islamists will take over if Mubarak falls and our knowledge that in providing massive support to a corrupt, dictatorial regime, we are undermining our credibility throughout the Middle East. (Today Ha’aretz is reporting that the Muslim Brotherhood is  trying to create a unity government that excludes Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.)

We support regimes like Mubarak’s because we say we need them for stability in the region and try hard to repress the knowledge that in doing so, we are breeding the conditions for future instability.

Does anybody remember the Shah of Iran and how our years of support for this hated leader backfired and created the anti-Western Islamic regime we face today?

Obama is taking some hits for cutting funding for democracy-building programs in Egypt, but this strikes me as silly; what  good will $50 million to Egypt to promote democracy do when we’re sending more than $1 billion in foreign aid to support an undemocratic regime – and when we cynically proclaim that regime to be one of our key allies in the region? Talk about wasted money.

Obama’s tentative shifts on the issue are being put under the microscope by political and foreign policy analysts. That may be more of an academic exercise than anything else; at this late stage, it seems to me there’s little way we can affect what’s happening on Egypt’s seething streets.

Signaling cautious support for the demonstrators, as President Obama seems to be doing, isn’t going to undo the accurate perception that we helped perpetuate Mubarak’s cruel rule for decades; additional support for Mubarak won’t quell the unrest that threatens to topple him.

Numerous newspaper stories describe how Israel is watching events in Egypt with concern tinged with dread. No big surprise there; the last thing the Jewish state needs is political instability in what was once its most dangerous enemy, and maybe empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood, a cousin of Hamas.

There are already rumbles on Capitol Hill abut cutting or eliminating Egypt’s big chunk of U.S. foreign aid; Rep. Anthony Weiner is once again calling for a “review” of that aid.

If Mubarak stays, it’s hard to see how Congress – locked into the same fear of what comes after Mubarak as a succession of administrations, and with the pro-Israel lobby likely supporting a continuation of aid  – will do much more than huff and puff. If he goes, what lawmakers do next depends on who replaces him.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.