Egypt: The US Swims with Alligators

It was in 2004 and I was having lunch with Tom Donlan, my editor at Barron’s.  Each time I have written for Barron’s, Tom has been the man who edited by work.  It was Tom who had taken my opinion piece on Iraq, Talking the Talk – Communication is the real failure in Iraq, and made it the guest editorial.  Tom has been with Barron’s for more than 20 years, the last nine as an editor.  He is a very accomplished journalist.  I have learned a great deal from him as a result of our professional relationship and have grown to really like him as simply a good man. 

I always enjoy having lunch with Tom when we can just sit and talk without the pressure of writing and editing.  Given his career in journalism, a conversation with Tom is like a friendly tennis match.  One of us offers an idea or a comment on current affairs and we’re off to the races.

During our lunch, I made a statement, paused, and then completed it.  I honestly don’t remember pausing for effect, but it seems that must have been in my mind.  Tom had raised the question of whether the US policy of introducing democracy to Iraq was worthwhile.  Perhaps just removing Saddam was all that could be expected to be successful.  Creating a democracy, or trying to, would only complicate an already complex situation.

Fair enough, I understood him, but I disagreed.  I said I felt that democracy was critical to regional peace and stabilisation.  As I put it, “Democracies do not go to war…”  As I hesitated, Tom raised his hand as if to protest, and I finished my sentence, “…with each other.”  He lowered his hand and we went on with the conversation, turning to other subjects.

I am sure that someone will suggest that this is not always the case.  Yes, Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic was a “democracy”, but in the same sense as Iran is a “democracy” under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but both fall far, far short of being a democracy most of us would welcome in our own nations.  Kosovo was certainly not an exercise in democracy.  I look at the major wars of the last hundred years and I find a dictatorship or a highly authoritarian, undemocratic government behind each one.  I agree with Winston Churchill’s famous comment, “”It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” 

I mention all this as prologue because I want to be clear in my general support for those in Tunisia and Egypt who seek greater democracy, but the transition is not an easy one, as Iraq has demonstrated.  When a foreign force, military or diplomatic, plays a key role in this kind of “regime change”, its influence over the results will closely track its willingness to support that change in more than words alone.

So I had saw red flags waving when I read of a new WikiLeak, Egypt protests: America’s secret backing for rebel leaders behind uprising, today in London’s Telegraph. 

It’s not at all unusual for the US or another nation to “play both sides of the street” in geopolitics, but it is especially tricky business when it involves a nation we regularly call an “ally”, count on as a “stabilizing influence”, and one whose government expects that we will immediately notify it if we find evidence of a coming attempt to overthrow it.  Make it a major actor in the seemingly never-ending Middle East drama and it becomes especially dangerous.  I support democratization in the region, as I did in Iraq, but this approach is one of the toughest to pull off successfully, particularly when there are several groups vying for power, some of whom are very unlikely to ever call the US their “ally.”

It is one thing to send troops into a nation and then insist that a democracy be put in place.  That was no easy task in Germany or Japan and we will not know the final results in Iraq for some years to come.  But to try and do it on the sly, playing both sides and without anything to offer other than words, is more than dangerous.  It is potentially catastrophic.

You will note in the WikiLeak that the measures taken by the US as described occurred in the waning months of the Bush administration, but you will have a hard job convincing me (or the Egyptians) that the Obama administration 1) severed all relations with these Egyptian insurgents and 2) warned the Egyptian government of the up-coming assault.  I will need some hard evidence to back that up.  So will the Egyptian armed forces.  And I’m not so sure that the insurgents, should they succeed in gaining power, will be all that grateful to their American advisors.

It is easy for an American administration to make an exceedingly complex geopolitical situation even more complex, should it choose to do so, but that swamp has some pretty big alligators in it.

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