While everyone is busy dispensing advice about how Washington should respond to the crisis in Egypt, I am reminded of what famed screenwriter William Goldman once said about Hollywood:”Nobody knows anything.”As Goldman explained, nobody in tinsel town has the faintest clue how to guarantee a hit movie. The studio suits typically muster their best theories and their best market research, yet most of their films flop anyway. Or they’ll pass on a project that looks like a dog, and it winds up reaping Oscars at another studio. Nobody knows anything.And that’s the case thus far with the American response (from politicians, pundits, foreign affairs scholars) to the growing tumult in Cairo. So many of us seem absolutely certain about What Washington Should Do – after all, certitude is the coin of the realm in the yakyakyakosphere – yet the truth is, we really don’t know jack.Assuming that we even have a say in the matter (which is questionable, since the fate of the 30-year Mubarak regime will be decided by the Egyptians, not by us), we are fooling ourselves if we think that any particular American response will surely guarantee the best of all possible outcomes. The Middle East is way too complicated for that. The problem is, we Americans don’t do complications.From our perspective (is there any other?), the best outcome would be a peaceful, democratic regime that keeps the terrorists at bay and keeps the oil flowing westward. That’s a tall order. There’s no magic formula for filling that order.Right now, the most popular American argument is that we should stand up for human rights and side with the aggrieved citizens in the street. This makes a lot of sense, given the idealistic impulses that have often guided our foreign policy; presidents as different as Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush have insisted that America promote democracy abroad. Hosni Mubarak has long oppressed and tortured his own people, with the tacit complicity of its American ally. This weekend, the protesters were dispersed with the help of tear gas cannisters made in the U.S.A.So, according to this argument, we need to get on the right side of the fight; that way, the Arab in the street would see America as a friend, not an oppresser. As the noted foreign affairs scholar Anne Applebaum wrote yesterday, “We should smile and embrace instability. And we should rejoice – because change, in repressive societies, is good.”Maybe that’s the way to go. The problem is, our past attempts to promote democracy have frequently backfired. And spontaneous uprisings have too often produced regimes that are antithetical to democracy. Iraq and Palestine are only two recent examples. Maybe government critic Mohamed ElBaradei and the Muslim Brotherhood would be better (for us, as well as for the aggrieved secular citizenry) than Mubarak, but there are absolutely no guarantees. Those of us who have reached a certain age well remember Gamal Abdel Nassar, who came to power in 1952 during the last Egyptian grassroots uprising; he clashed repeatedly with America, imperiled the oil flow, and fought two wars against Israel.So the minority American view is that we should stick with Mubarak, and prod him to make democratic concessiions. This makes a lot of sense, given the pragmatic impulses that have often guided our foreign policy. Under the credo of “realpolitick,” you take the world as it is, and do deals with dictators or anyone else who can help ensure international stability and thus protect America’s economic and security interests. Presidents of both parties have done this with Mubarak, dating back to the early Reagan era. We have fed him billions in aid; in return, he has kept the oil coming, played nice with Israel, and worked in cahoots with us on post-9/11 counterterrorism.But it has been a Faustian pact for us as well. Our tight alliance with Mubarak, and the latter’s economically oppressive policies, have helped radicalize middle-class Egyptian Islamists – prodding a deadly number of them to join up with al Qaeda and other violent jihadists. Some of those Egyptians were instrumental in the 9/11 attacks. So a case can be made that any U.S. attempts to shore up Mubarak, in the wake of the protests, would merely serve as a new recruiting poster.All of which explains why Secretary of State Clinton was so tentative, and at times inarticulate, in her remarks on the Sunday shows: “This is a complex, very difficult situation…We do not want to send any message about backing forward or backing back…There’s no easy answer.” It would appear that she and her boss would like to nudge Mubarak toward broadscale reforms, perhaps as the price for retaining power; after all, as Obama himself said in Cairo two years ago, “Government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power. You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion.”Maybe that’s the right path. But who knows anything? Certainly not our elected leaders. Consider this CNN quote, the other day, from Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner – most notably, his closing remark: “The the more democratic the Middle East is, the less likely it is we’re going to have conflagration and conflicts between countries. That’s my view. I hope that turns out to be right.”He hopes. He’s a foreign affairs guy, yet he doesn’t know either. So perhaps we would all be wise to observe a moratorium on certitude.
Barack Obama’s re-election strategy seems to hinge in part on replicating various chapters of the Clinton and Reagan playbooks. Or so I suggested, with empirical evidence, in a Sunday newspaper column.
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