By Aaron David Miller
Reviewed by Michael W. Cotter, Publisher of American Diplomacy
Aaron David Miller, for many years the principal assistant to Dennis Ross in executing U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, is one of the more thoughtful Middle East experts in the United States. In this Foreign Policy article he lays out cogent reasons why the U.S. should not cut military assistance to Egypt. He, or Foreign Policy, chose the unfortunate title of “Dumb and Dumber” for this article, something I have dropped in order not to lose possible readers of this review. Although the article is now two months old and the Obama administration appears to have made the decision to continue providing military assistance to Egypt, it still deserves reading for the contradictions and challenges about American foreign policy it highlights. Here are two of those contradictions, even though Miller might not agree with the conclusions I draw from them:
1.) Laws often fail to anticipate reality. This is especially true in foreign policy where the impact of legislation often is not what Congress intended. Case in point: the laws that impose sanctions when a “democracy” is overthrown by coup and for violations of what Americans hold dear as human rights. Miller notes that U.S. support for the Sadat and Mubarak regimes in Egypt was “a devil’s bargain,” giving them a pass on human rights and political reform in return for maintaining stability. It wasn’t permanent but, as he notes, “lasted a long time.” Now he sees in the Egyptian military the only organization that promises stability in a region where that is arguably more important than ever. So he believes that a similar pass should again be given to the Egyptian military, suggesting that the positive role the U.S. can play is to work with the military to fashion a transition to a future he fails to describe.
We have heard this tune before. For decades the U.S. supported autocrats and “Big Men” in Africa and elsewhere not because it liked them, but because in the absence of such rule the alternative was perceived as chaos or, even worse, a government subservient to the Soviet Union. Succeeding administrations justified the policy by promising to work for the creation of civil institutions that would lead to democracy. The nature of authoritarian rule means that it didn’t work then, and is unlikely to work in Egypt now when the Middle East is entering a period that will only grow more chaotic.
2.) Americans tend to believe that “progressive” forces, i.e., people who think like them and speak their language, are able to bring about true democratic change after a popular uprising removes a autocratic government. Miller’s justification for supporting the Egyptian military makes clear that those forces were incapable of doing so in that instance. In fact, the same has proven true in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and very likely Syria; other places where we have, or are considering, supporting efforts to remove authoritarian regimes.
Thus Miller’s arguments are valid not only for the case of Egypt, but as well for the other challenges the U.S. and its allies are and will be facing, not only in the Middle East, as the 21st Century progresses.