By Steven A. Cook, CFR
Editor’s note: Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This entry of From the Potomac to the Euphrates originally appeared here. The views expressed are his own.
Egypt is a mess. Just two short years after the uprising that brought Hosni Mubarak’s long rule to an end, the country is paralyzed politically, protests have become increasingly violent, sectarian tensions are high, the public health system is in total disarray, and the economy is near collapse. Nothing has gone right in this country of 84 million people that has traditionally been the most influential in the region – for good or bad – and since the mid-1970s a pillar of U.S.-Middle East policy. It is not only the peace between Egypt and Israel, but also the U.S. Navy’s access to the Suez Canal, the many daily U.S. military over flights critical to the United States in confronting the Iranian threat, and Egypt’s logistical assistance for U.S. operations in Afghanistan and until not too long ago Iraq that are of paramount importance to Washington.
As a result, an objective observer might come to the reasonable conclusion that Egypt needs help and that the international community should do what it can to help pull Egyptians back from the brink. That is certainly the view of most analysts from across the political spectrum, yet in one corner of the commentariat, they are actually hoping for Egypt to fail.
I recently came across a piece by David P. Goldman who pretentiously uses the pen name “Spengler” for Oswald Arnold Gottfried Spengler, an important early20th century German historian and philosopher, that paints a frightening picture of Egypt, its economy, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Spengler/Goldman uses the recent revelation of President Mohammed Morsi’s anti-Semitism as his point of departure for a wild ride through his a-historic revisionism ranging from the claim that economic collapse was the reason for the uprising (a point made moot by his own argument that Egypt is now on the verge of economic collapse) to what the West should have done during those critical 18 days in early 2011. Here is a good example:
No nation the size of Egypt has become ungovernable except as a result of war during the whole modern period. The deterioration of the Arab Spring into societal breakdown constitutes a reproach to the Western foreign policy establishment, which could not envision this outcome before, and refuses to consider its consequences now.
Spengler/Goldman’s reference to the “modern period” is supposed to give this analysis an air of heavy intellectual seriousness, but what we have here is nothing more than a crude lament that the United States did not give Mubarak a so-called “green light” to crack down two years ago. This is revealing for what Spengler/Goldman does not know about Egypt, its history, and the causes of Hosni Mubarak’s fall, but everyone is a Middle East expert these days. Even if President Obama had signaled that there would be no penalty for an Egyptian version of Tiananmen, it would not have been forthcoming. Egypt’s officer’s would never have risked splitting the army’s loyalty, conscious that the captains, majors, and colonels on duty in Egypt’s streets beginning January 28, 2011 would not have obeyed the order to fire on fellow Egyptians. Once more, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces saw in the uprising an opportunity to rid themselves of Gamal Mubarak and his coterie who threatened their political and economic interests. Underlying Spengler/Goldman’s cry is, of course, an assumption that the United States could drive events in Egypt. Even at moments when Egypt’s main political actors are not engaged in an existential struggle, Washington’s leverage is half-baked at best.
These details do not matter much because Spengler/Goldman is not actually interested in understanding Egypt. No, this isn’t an intellectual enterprise: Spengler/Goldman is engaged in an ideological contest. His target? The Republican Party, for not hanging Egypt on President Obama.
The discovery of Morsy’s apes-and-pigs comment might have provided a pretext for America’s Republican Party to wash their hands of the Egyptian president and shift the blame for the entire mess onto the Obama administration. Such is the loyalty of the Republican mainstream to the so-called freedom agenda of the former Bush administration…
In Spengler/Goldman’s angry binary world, those natives clearly have no agency of their own. It’s spineless American politicians who are to blame for Egypt’s imminent collapse. In the end, Spengler/Goldman comes to the conclusion that Egypt will need $20 billion/year to stay afloat and since the United States and the West don’t have it and since Morsy is a crude anti-Semite, the international community should hasten an Egyptian calamity by withholding whatever aid is available.
Lest anyone believe Spengler/Goldman is an outlier, Shoshana Bryen from the Jewish Policy Center assails the Obama administration for not docking Egypt’s generous military aid and economic aid over Morsy’s anti-Semitism. She cites retired Brigadier General Safwat al Zayat – an ostensible interpreter of the politics of the Egyptian military, but who has been wrong so often that one wonders whether he is part of a military intelligence deception and denial campaign – claiming that the delivery of F-16s to Egypt was a signal from the Obama administration that it supports Morsi. It was a signal, but rather to the military, which continues to work with Washington on its strategic concerns in the region. The anti-Semitism of the Muslim Brotherhood is a problem and should be denounced as the Obama administration has, but to evoke a bygone era of which Bryen was no doubt a supporter, you have to deal with the Egypt you have, not the one you want.