As modernity continues to lap up against the brittle regimes of the Middle East—with Tunisians ousting a dictator who had ruled them for a quarter-century, Jordanians and Yemenis in the streets, Lebanon caught somewhere between anarchy and a terror-ocracy, and Cairo in chaos—the central question for Washington is this: Are we witnessing a replay of 1979 (but on a region-wide scale), 1989 (and if so, which part of that pivot-point year) or 2009? Knowing—or at least surmising—which kind of revolution this is will offer something of a playbook to the administration and help determine a course of action for American foreign policy.
That said, the revolutionaries or reformers won’t necessarily follow that same playbook. For all their showy self-assurance, President Barack Obama and his foreign-policy team are learning that Washington cannot control events in faraway lands with a speech or a Nobel Peace Prize or a poli-sci presentation of how things should be in a perfect world. Being president is often about reacting to unwelcome surprises and then choosing the least bad option.
So, if this is a replay of 1979, when a frenzied mob took over Iran, invaded the U.S. embassy grounds, took Americans hostage and installed a theocratic dictator—all partly related to America’s long-term support for another dictator—the administration must be ready to react forcefully. There are worrisome similarities to 1979 that could emerge in Egypt: suppressed political-religious groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, could seize power and create a bona fide terrorist state astride the Med and Suez; the U.S. has propped up Mubarak’s hated regime for 30 years; and there are lots of Americans and American interests in Egypt. If those interests or those citizens are threatened or harmed, U.S. force should be immediately employed to answer the threat and/or act of aggression. Better still, before some Tehran-style embassy crisis even happens, Washington’s considerable military contacts with the Egyptian military should send a firm warning to that effect.
Then, if Egypt is in fact Islamicized, the Obama administration and its successor would be able to deal with the “Islamic Republic of Egypt” in a dispassionate manner, unencumbered by concerns over protecting innocent American hostages. Make no mistake, an Arab version of Iran would be an incredible long-term headache for Washington, but depriving such a regime of an opportunity to hold the United States hostage, a la Ayatollah Khomeini’s 444-day humiliation of America, would be a critical near-term objective. Longer-term strategic objectives under this scenario would include ensuring the flow of goods (especially oil) through the Suez and ensuring Israel’s security.
To that point, Egypt has appeared, at least from 5,800 miles away, to veer close to chaos and even collapse these last several days. If Egypt’s own government institutions—the military and the police—fail to maintain internal order, protect life and property, and/or keep the Suez Canal operating, there will be a call for some type of international intervention. And as the world’s first responders, the U.S. military will get that call. Obama will then have to make a very tough call.
If Washington views this as something more akin to 1989, the first step is to determine which part of 1989 this revolution is paralleling. If it’s like 1989 in Europe—when the people of Eastern Europe threw off their communist rulers, and those rulers, happily, lost the nerve they had in 1956, 1968 and 1981—then Obama should follow the example of President George H.W. Bush.
Bush supported the freedom movement with words and acted with caution so as not to undermine Gorbachev or invite a crackdown. To be sure, Bush had his critics. Some in his administration, in the midst of the revolution, advised him to go to Berlin to close the chapter Kennedy and Reagan began. Some in Congress called on him to go “dance on the Wall,” as he recalls in A World Transformed. But as Bush recognized, that “would have poured gasoline on the embers.”
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