Less than 50 days out from a presidential elections is not a good time to have a reasoned debate about U.S.-Egypt relations. That said, I am mostly comfortable with the comments of President Mohamed Morsi despite his critiques of our foreign policy, our society, and his strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. He received a Ph.D from the University of Southern California in the 1980’s and he’s happy to say, “Go Trojans.” I feel better knowing that he has a real familiarity with our people and our culture, because I feel like a lot of folks who are in various Islamist movements don’t have that kind of knowledge, and it can lead to misunderstandings. President Morsi may not like restaurants like Hooters, but I can’t say that I am a big fan of them myself. Perhaps we dislike them for slightly different reasons, but his prudery doesn’t bother me.
I think President Morsi is correct when he says that the United States has a special responsibility to the Palestinians because we signed the Camp David Accords which called for a withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the establishment of a Palestinian state. As long as those commitments are not fulfilled, the terms of the treaty are under stress. This comment warrants more discussion:
He suggested that Egypt would not be hostile to the West, but would not be as compliant as Mr. Mubarak either.
“Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region,” he said, by backing dictatorial governments over popular opposition and supporting Israel over the Palestinians.
This is very similar to my critique of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, but it’s hopelessly lacking in nuance. In the case of Egypt, the U.S. did not install Nasser, or Sadat, or Mubarak in power. We didn’t squash any nascent democracy movement, as we did in 1953 in Iran. During the 1960’s and early 1970’s it was the Soviets who armed Egypt and dominated its internal politics. And when Jimmy Carter worked with Begin and Sadat to start a real peace process, it was Islamist radicals, not democratic freedom-fighters, who assassinated Sadat. Part of the reason that America supported Mubarak against organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood was because we were trying to protect the peace process that was originated at Camp David.
Things might have been different if Carter had had a second term to consolidate his gains and advance the peace process, but we got Reagan and the invasion of Lebanon instead. While conservative governments in the United States ignored the peace process, the settlers changed the facts on the ground and made both the Camp David Accords and the Oslo peace process much more difficult to implement. By the time President Obama arrived on the scene, the Palestinian government was split and basically Humpty Dumpty had fallen off the wall.
But it’s too simplistic to argue that America has been supporting leaders like Mubarak because we oppose democracy and Egyptians’ rights. The relationship started with Sadat in the context of the Cold War. It was built up in the context of Camp David Accords. And it later got entwined with anti-terrorism efforts after the first bombing of the World Trade Center.
America has substantial responsibility for its failure to see to it that the Camp David Accords were implemented as designed, but both the Israelis and the Palestinians have plenty of responsibility for that, too.
You can’t just look at the question of Palestine without looking at a larger picture. The U.S. intervened in Kuwait to protect the principle of sovereignty. They intervened in the Balkans to protect Muslims. They intervened in Libya to protect Muslims. And our current president has been treading over very treacherous ground to, as far as possible, support the democratic aspirations reflected in the Arab Spring.
One can point to the 1953 coup in Iran or the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the pro-Israeli policies of the United States or to a number of other legitimate irritants to Arab and Muslim public opinion, but the U.S. isn’t responsible for every woe in the Arab world. That’s a cop-out.
Democracy in Egypt makes the U.S. nervous. The Muslim Brotherhood makes the U.S. nervous. But we actually have an opportunity to vastly improve the relationship between our people and our governments. If we learn to live with having less control and less predictability, and Egypt learns to do less finger-pointing and more responsible governing, we can overcome our fear and Egypt can overcome their resentment.
President Morsi will not be visiting the White House on this trip to the United States because Obama’s political opponents will politicize it if he does. That’s the fear talking. That’s what America has to work on. The Egyptians have their own work to do.