It’s much too early to identify clear winners in the political turmoil in Egypt but it’s already easy to spot an obvious loser: the stumbling Obama administration must now abandon its cherished but dangerous illusions about peace in the Middle East.
During the Cairo crisis, the president reacted in a tardy, uncertain manner, reacting to new developments rather than shaping them. Considering Hosni Mubarak’s age (he is 82 and now in reportedly poor health) the administration seemed shockingly unprepared to face the reality that he couldn’t possibly govern indefinitely, and that Egypt’s generous American sponsors needed to prepare for a transition.
Instead, the president focused for his first two years on prodding the Israelis to make dubious concessions for the sake of a meaningless peace agreement with the West Bank Palestinians—a ruling elite that doesn’t even claim control over its own embattled countrymen in Gaza. The administration and its apologists promoted this phantom treaty as a regional panacea, as if the poisons of fanatical Islamism and sclerotic autocracy would evaporate like noxious mists in the sudden sunlight of an Obama-engineered new day.
In fact, any compact between Israel and Mahmoud Abbas would have provoked a deadly intra-Palestinian struggle between the Fatah faction on the West Bank and their mortar-happy, Hamas blood-rivals in Gaza. Considering the close ties between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in neighboring Egypt, that struggle might have actually hastened the end of an already unpopular Mubarak regime, rather than extending its obviously limited life. Moreover, the idea that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could ever lead to a change in Iran’s chilling pursuit of nuclear weaponry remains a bizarrely illogical chimera. Any conceivable agreement would have necessarily included recognition of Israel’s permanent presence in the area, and acknowledgement of a Jewish capital in (at least part of) Jerusalem--both unacceptable conditions to the Ahmadina-whackjob regime and other Islamic maximalists. The only document the Iranians want from the Israelis is a death certificate, not a peace treaty.
If nothing else, the Egyptian earth-quake should put an end to the odd Obama obsession with Israeli settlement policy as a significant factor in the stability and progress of the larger Islamic world. Decent people all hope that a new government in Cairo will avoid domination by the Koranic enthusiasts of the Muslim Brotherhood and will honor the long-standing Sinai Accords with Israel, but the fragility of that hope indicates the limited utility of international agreements as durable guarantees of security.
Now, in response to Egyptian events, Abbas has dismissed his cabinet and called for new elections with no guarantee that fresh leadership would honor any pledges by their Palestinian predecessors. Hamas (which won a landslide victory in the only open elections in Palestinian history) angrily rejects any public or private commitments made by Abbas or even his sainted mentor, Yasser Arafat.
Americans, already exhausted by a sputtering economy and looming fiscal crisis, want to share the administration’s optimistic outlook on the Egyptian future so they can quickly forget about the Cairo commotion and concentrate on important issues closer to home – like Lady Gaga’s controversial new single and spring training for major league baseball. Nevertheless, the president’s eagerness to identify the fall of Mubarak as a sublime triumph for passive resistance, and his specific invocations of the achievements of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, introduced a false, tinny, even slightly cracked note to his otherwise eloquent remarks. “It was the moral force of non-violence – not terrorism, not mindless killing – but non-violence, moral force that bent the arch of history toward justice once more,” the president sonorously intoned. Unfortunately, he lavishly exaggerated the potency of peaceful Gandhian resistance as a matter of historical record. Only relatively civilized governments, capable of embarrassment and connected to the democratic West, yield to non-violence, as did the British Raj in India, or the die-hard segregationists of the American South. Elsewhere – in Budapest during the Hungarian uprising of ’56, or Czechoslovakia after the “Prague Spring” in ’68, or Beijing during the Tiananmen Square protests of ‘89, or Teheran with the massive “Green Revolution” outpouring of 2009 – ruthless anti-Western regimes wielded brutal force to crush resistance. There’s also the salient example of Syria’s notorious Hama Massacres of 1982—where the no-nonsense Assad regime slaughtered at least 17,000 of its own citizens (estimates go as high as 40,000) for their unspeakable rudeness in resisting the dictatorship.
Reviewing the wreckage of the administration’s mania for Middle East negotiations, it’s difficult not to see a parallel with its most questionable judgment in domestic affairs. While the public worried over unemployment and the general state of the economy, Obama and his allies focused with ferocity on the long-term and hardly urgent issue of sweeping health care reform. Similarly, while our most significant Arab ally with a population of more than 80 million teetered toward collapse, the administration concentrated attention and resources on impossible, visionary deals between Israelis and Palestinians whose combined population registers as barely one-eighth as large.
One of the most important responsibilities of statesmanship involves concentrating attention on the most urgent threats and pressing issues of the day, while postponing or disregarding all distractions. President Obama has displayed an unfortunate counter-tendency to obsess on the distractions, while putting off or altogether ignoring the most significant challenges – a menacing habit for the Middle East and for America itself.