Egyptian Sit Rep

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I think everyone can agree that Egypt is a mess. I’ll give a pass to al Qaeda (who crave chaos within which to fester), but generally, everyone views the situation as problematic – geopolitically[1], humanistically[2] and economically[3].

So what do we do?

Any response should be serially filtered through two criteria: (a) strategic, i.e., which outcome offers the better future for US interests and those of the free world, and traditionally, (b) moral, i.e., which outcome offers the better future for Egypt. But first, we should define the playing field – what end-states are we contemplating: “democracy”; totalitarianism; authoritarianism; stability? And the players – the Muslim Brotherhood; the military; everybody else.

There is much face-time being taken up by congressmen who are shocked! … shocked! … by the brutality of the military’s crackdown on perpetual mobs in the center of town, and are calling for an end to our $1.3 billion in foreign aid. How does that further American interests in Egypt/the region? And how does that improve the outlook for Egypt?

The outcome we, and the lesser part of the street, want is for a secular, democratic Egypt to emerge from the chaos. Not going to happen. Our real choice is between the Muslim Brotherhood (totalitarianism) and the military (authoritarianism). They loathe one another, so the odds against some sort of coalition has a lot of 9s in it.

What are our interests vis-à-vis Egypt? (1) a secure Suez Canal, (2) friendly ties with the US, (3) continued alliance with the pro-American Gulf Arabs and Jordanians, (4) retention of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, (5) cooperation with the US on terrorism, which in part involves (6) isolating Brotherhood-run Gaza. Is the Brotherhood more or less likely than the military to keep the Suez open and operating? Is the Brotherhood more or less likely than the military to establish/maintain working relations with America? Is the Brotherhood more or less likely than the military to be a reliable partner with pro-American Arabs and Hashemite Jordan? Is the Brotherhood more or less likely than the military to honor the Camp David Accords? Is the Brotherhood more or less likely than the military to be complicit in jihadist activity in North Africa, Sudan and Mali? And especially in Gaza, where the Brotherhood-sired Hamas is locked in a blood feud with Israel? These are the constituent parts of regional stability – the World’s largest Arab state can influence the behavior of lesser Arab states and actors. It’s what it’s been doing for half a century. “If I can’t get sectarian democracy, I’ll take regional stability,” should be our strategic mindset with Egypt. Since Mubarak did all of those things for thirty years, and the military is the power behind the throne, I would say that backing the military against the Brotherhood would best serve American interests in Egypt.

Regarding Egypt herself, we should favor an outcome that will: (1) manage a growing economy – with a vibrant economy, all things are possible; without one, nothing is even probable, (2) respect the rights of women and minorities, (3) encourage economic freedom, (4) lean toward self-determination, and (5) exercise religious tolerance. These are the best outcomes for the Egyptian people. Which player gets a higher score through these filters? I think, again, the military is a closer fit to these criteria than is the Brotherhood.

The street is of two minds – and I’m not speaking of pro-Morsi or anti-Morsi, rather democrats and Islamists. The democrats started the revolution that ousted Mubarak, but the Islamists have since taken the movement over through their superior brutishness. The pro-Morsi street is the voice of Islamism, which, when peeved, burns churches. The Brotherhood invented modern omni-national jihad 85 years ago, and have been practicing it ever since. We’ve seen their economic prowess in Gaza, which they’ve turned from a thriving shop-driven neighborhood of neighborhoods into a squalid armed ghetto[4].

In his brief tenure, President Morsi offered nothing but incompetent, intolerant, increasingly dictatorial rule. In one year, he managed to squander 85 years of Brotherhood prestige garnered in opposition – a place from which one can promise the Moon – by persecuting journalists and activists, granting himself the unchallenged power to rule by decree, enshrining a sectarian Islamist constitution and systematically trying to seize the instruments of state power[5]. He was dissociating the military from state policy in order to coopt it.

This is going to sound odd for a constitutionalist conservative, but I do not favor existentially introducing “democracy” into Egypt, and I do not favor Muslim Brotherhood [civilian] control of the military. I favor a stability underwritten by a pro-Western, if authoritarian, military over a one-man-one-vote-one-time “democracy”, à la Gaza, underwritten by xenophobic religious tyrants.


[1] The Egyptian-Israeli Camp David Accord is the only thing allowing an Israeli non-war status quo, and with the Muslim Brotherhood in political control of Egypt (Morsi administration), the future of the Accord is in serious doubt. The Suez Canal is a major oil route for Europe-bound tankers, and is vastly cheaper than shooting the Cape (the next cheapest alternative to get from Arabian oil fields to European ports). Egypt does not drive, but does influence – can measurably ameliorate or exacerbate – the establishment of radical Islamists in North Africa, Sudan and Mali.

[2] The ubiquitous brutalizing of the Egyptian people by their own military and police, and because of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ritualistic killing of Coptic Christians and the razing of their homes and churches (it walks and quacks a lot like ethnic cleansing). This is all on top of the normal human cost of armed conflict, and all the more pronounced in urban conflict (the nastiest venue for combat operations).

[3] The obvious threat to European oil delivery costs, but also due to Egypt’s foreign trade and tourism – both of which are essentially non-existent during the chaos. Also, the street violence has all but shut-down local shops and businesses – thereby impoverishing the walking citizens of Cairo (and whatever other cities are daily embroiled in street violence).

[4] The best chance Palestinians had to rally the civilized world to their side was to establish a viable economy and civil institutions in Gaza, showing that they were able to operate a state.

[5] See Charles Krauthammer, The choice in Egypt: A dictatorship is better for the country and the US, in Washington Post, August 23 2013.

NOTE: Title art by Bill Day.

Egyptian Summer

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Egypt, like all non-Western states, was bound to prove problematic in the post-Cold War world. Where we didn’t prop up autocrats, we went out of our way to make like miserable under Soviet stewardship. Either way, the view in the street of American diplomacy wasn’t worth much.

But we got ourselves into deep doo-doo across the Greater Middle East with our bungling of the Mubarak ouster in 2012. At first, we backed the president. When it became obvious that the military was backing the demonstrators, we knew that Mubarak’s time was limited, and sent veteran diplomat Frank Wisner, former US Ambassador to Egypt, to Cairo with a deal for Mubarak – agree not to run for office in September so as to facilitate an orderly peaceful transition to a new regime. Ambassador Wisner swiftly accomplished his mission. But in a press conference back home, President Obama publicly called on Mubarak, our longtime ally, to resign, and to resign “now.” The following day, his press secretary was asked what the president meant by “now.” He responded that “now” meant “yesterday.” But “yesterday” was completely inconsistent with the settlement Wisner had faithfully agreed upon with Mubarak. Wisner left Egypt in dismay. His own president had cut the ground out from under him, and we lost a settlement that would have been far more constructive for American interests than what was to transpire[1].

The ambassador was not alone in his bewilderment. A leading Saudi in Europe expressed his shock: “Mubarak was your longest and most loyal ally in the Middle East. He worked with you on every counterterrorism measure over the last 30 years; he kept the Suez Canal open; he supported the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the Camp David peace agreement arranged by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat; and he continued to support efforts to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian compromise, and to that end he even helped blockade Hamas in Gaza. Yet in the first week that Mubarak was in trouble, you backstab him.” What all the regional leaders in the Middle East now believe, he says, is that “the minute I get into trouble the same will happen to me[2].”

These events terrified Israel. Mubarak, while not an ally to Tel Aviv, had been, as leader of the largest Arab nation, Israel’s guarantor of non-war with her Arab neighbors, and had even blockaded Hamas fighters from transiting from Sinai to Gaza and back[3]. The sudden abandonment of Mubarak, and our tacit acquiescence to the Muslim Brotherhood’s claim of turning over a new leaf, left Israel in the lurch – would the Camp David Accords still be honored? Would Egypt still police her end of the Gaza tunnels? Would a Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo still act as a suppressant on Syrian-Hizbollah-Jordanian kinetic ambitions toward Israel? The epicenter of Greater Middle East stability – such as it is – rested in Mubarak’s Cairo, and we had, without consultation with Tel Aviv[4], just thrown that away.

American influence in the Middle East has been severely compromised by mixed messages being sent almost daily, starting with the “apology speech” given in Cairo by President Obama on June 4 2009 and extending through our current eagerness to negotiate with the Taliban even as they kill and maim American troops in Afghanistan[5]. The Middle Eastern mind was nicely illuminated in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, not to mention Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by TE Lawrence himself. Arabs are died-in-the-wool Realists – they see balances of power as the viscera of political survival. Osama bin Laden, citing al Qaeda’s quickness, shorter decision cycles and decisiveness, claimed to be on the “strong horse” compared to the US, and that is very Bedouin … very Arab. They, geopolitically, respect power and disdain all else.

On June 18, Anne W Patterson, US Ambassador to Egypt and a veteran diplomat, gave a speech in Cairo in which she stated, that “[w]hile the US supported Egypt’s democratic development, it still had to deal with those in power,” insulting those in power as being somewhat less than desirable to Ambassador Patterson; and then went on to say, “I don’t think the elected nature of this government is seriously in doubt, moreover, [I am] deeply skeptical that street action will produce better results than elections,” thereby insulting the demonstrators who only too well remember “street action” that brought down Mubarak and empowered Morsi. I honestly don’t know what Ms Patterson was trying to accomplish by sticking one thumb in the eye of the Muslim Brotherhood and another in the eye of the opposition, simultaneously. This is hieroglyphical thought beyond the Rosetta Stone’s ability to translate.

Our disjointed approach to foreign policy seems wishy-washy to the Arab mind (read: weak), and so we get the worst of both worlds – our Arab allies don’t trust us and our Arab enemies don’t respect us (read: fear us). We need to remember two things when negotiating with the Middle Eastern mind (Arab and Persian): there is no Qur’anic prohibition against lying to infidels (anyone who does not share the speaker’s brand of Islam); and in Henry Kissinger’s words, “the only moderate Islamist is one who’s out of ammunition.” Their internal politics and diplomatic excursions may seem labyrinthian and Byzantine, but it all rests on a rather simple calculus – winding up on the “strong horse” when the music stops. Strength and weakness resonate in the Middle Eastern mind, all else is noise.


[1] Mortimer B Zuckerman, Obama Is Costing the US Credibility in the Middle East, in US News & World Report, October 29 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] STRATFOR, July 18 2012.

[4] President Obama doesn’t much care for Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and thinks that he [Obama] is the better judge of policy for Middle Eastern stability than him [Netanyahu].

[5] The treatment of the murder of four government personnel in Benghazi as an inconvenience during an election cycle was not lost Middle Easterners, either.

No Good Option

No Good Option

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President Obama laid a trap for himself and it worked. His political practice of fecklessly moving the goalposts has crept into foreign policy with regrettable results. “The use of chemical weapons in Syria will be a game-changer,” he famously remarked last month. Israeli and British intelligence have stated that they have seen evidence of sarin having been used in Sunni neighborhoods (typically aligned with the rebels). And the president’s response was a resounding “I stand by my statement that the systematic use of chemical weapons will be a game-changer.” Except that’s not what he said. By adding the word “systematic,” he has moved the goalpost from “don’t use them” to “don’t regularly use them.”

The Syrian regime called Mr Obama’s bluff and he blinked.

This has Britain and the EU scratching their heads, and has terrified Israel (who now wonders if “we will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran” really means “we will not tolerate a ‘systematically’ nuclear-armed Iran”). Many of our allies are pressuring Washington to action. The two-year civil war in Syria has pretty much outlived its ability to be ignored by the West – counter-population air strikes against cities, the occasional mass execution of citizens in Sunni areas, siege-by-artillery of cities, and now mounting evidence of gassing their own citizens. The United Nations will be of no help (the Chinese and Russians will stop any meaningful Security Council measures from going forward). Everybody is looking to see what America does, especially after Mr Obama’s edict about chemical weapons use.

If he’s forced out of the corner into which he has painted himself, he has three general options. None good. The United States could hasten the fall of the regime – most probably by instituting a no-fly zone over Syria; we could increase the capabilities of the rebels – most probably by arming them; or we could secure/destroy the chemical weapons in Syria – involving boots on the ground. As I say, none good.

A no-fly zone would require neutralizing Syria’s air-defense network before our pilots could begin flying combat air patrols, and there would be no hope of eliminating even most MANPADS[1]. Once CAP operations begin, we would almost certainly need to involve a 6th Fleet carrier strike group in the eastern Mediterranean. As the CAP becomes more effective, Assad will come to rely more and more on tanks and towed artillery tubes to assault suspected rebel concentrations, which will almost ensure mission-creep of the no-fly zone into striking concentrations of artillery pieces (as it did in Libya). Look for Iran to pump missiles into Syria – bound for Hizbollah in Lebanon – between the establishment of the no-fly zone and the creep into paying attention to road traffic. This could cause yet another rift between Washington and Tel Aviv as the no-fly zone would foreclose Israeli interdiction of these missile shipments before they enter Lebanon. This situation could actually lead to forcing our hand into mission-creep as Mossad shares its evidence of Iranian involvement with CIA and White House.

The lowest cost option is to allow lethal aid to the rebels – equip them well enough to tilt the stalemate in their favor. This comes, of course, with all the nightmares of 1980s Afghanistan. CIA insists that al Qaeda “didn’t get one dime” from the assistance that went to the mujahedeen, and though true, that didn’t stop them from getting their hands on countless Stingers, Kalashnikovs and tens of thousands of 7.62mm rounds. Almost any turning out of the Assad regime will be a Sunni victory (which we prefer – to act as a buffer between Shi’ite Iran and their Shi’ite Hizbollah ally in Lebanon), but it must be remembered that al Qaeda is Sunni, and that they are not above working with Shi’ite interests in pursuit of American interests. We also don’t know to what lengths Iran will go to shore up the Assad regime when they realize that American arms are going to the rebels – they could send in battle-hardened Hizbollah fighters from Lebanon; they could step up arms supplies to loyalist fighters; they could heavily bolster Savak assets already in Syria; they could step up attacks on American interests in the Greater Middle East; on and on. Particularly if we choose this low-intensity route, Tehran would have little fear of reprisals for anything they choose to do. There is no respect for American power, short of platform-centric force-on-force conflict, among the ruling Mullahs in Tehran.

The direct approach to the corner Mr Obama has painted himself into would be to control or destroy the chemical weapons in Syria themselves, but this is fraught with hazards. Taking control of Syria’s chemical stockpile would require many, many troops on the ground, and we would have to guard it against both sides (al Qaeda and its affiliates would go to great lengths to acquire these weapons). With imperfect intelligence – and intel is always imperfect – we won’t know where all of the stocks are being stored, so we would have to augment the arsenal guardians with special operators tasked to find what we don’t yet have. This would be tantamount to joining the rebels in combat operations against the regime. It would make no sense to go in hard and not overthrow the regime in any case. This just isn’t an option under the current situation. Destroying Assad’s chemical stockpile shifts the body count from us to Syrians in that you won’t incinerate all of the sarin during an airstrike, meaning that some will be released into the air. We would, in essence, be doing what the president said he wouldn’t abide – gassing the Syrian people. All of the same imperfect intelligence concerns are present with this option as well.

The most probable course taken, assuming that any course is taken, is the providing of lethal aid to the rebels, probably resulting in a proxy war between the United States and Iran, with the Syrian people caught in the middle and terrorists reaping a bounty of American-made arms.

No good options.


[1] MAN-Portable Air Defense Systems, an example of which would be our FIM-92 Stinger or Russian supplied 9K38 SA-18 Igla. These systems tend to be heat seekers, and can be deployed by a single soldier against rotary-winged or fixed-winged targets.