In Egypt, US must avoid wishful thinking 

Kudos to Tim Carney, Senior Examiner Political Columnist, for invoking George Washington’s warning against “entangling alliances” in a piece on whether the recent events in Egypt are good for the US.

Tim uses this quote to prod us on the question of the hour -- should the US rush to entangle itself with the Egyptian demonstrators and their cause? 

Because the anti-regime demonstrations are being organized with up-to-date technology, there’s a presumption among many observers that the protestors must also be committed to a progressive, democratic, liberal vision for Egypt – and that they therefore deserve US support.

(After all, opportunistic thugs, religious fanatics and authoritarians could never use tools like Twitter or Facebook to seize to power – could they?)

Rather than stay on the sidelines, supporters of the demonstrators are urging the US to embrace the protests. They see the US' risk in doing so as minimal, and the upside as very attractive.

For example, if the US expresses support for the rebels and urges the regime to throw in the towel, then perhaps Egypt’s new leaders will be grateful to Washington and thus more open to cooperation on various matters -- such as the need to get tough on Iran and its nuclear program.

For foreign policy super-hawks, that scenario has to sound compelling. For the US to rally the Arab Sunni Muslim countries against Persian Shi’ite Muslim Iran, the US needs a government in Egypt, the largest Arab country, that will take a hard line against the mullahs.

And Egypt’s current leader, Hosni Mubarak, at least according to Wikileaks, is only enthusiastic about denouncing Iran…in private. So for the task of leading an Arab crusade against Iran (or jihad, if you like), he just won't do.

For the super-hawks, the way forward in Egypt is straight-forward – embrace the demonstrators, see to it that the current regime gives up power, and you create the opportunity for a new, more anti-Iran government to rule in Cairo.

But what looks straightforward to some looks like wishful thinking to me.

And wishful thinking is dangerous in foreign policy. And it has cost the US dearly before. 

As Matthias Küntzel has written, “wishful thinking” about Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution led some American policymakers to completely misread the consequences that would flow from the fanatic, medieval-minded Ayatollah Khomeini toppling the pro-American Shah of Iran. (The Shah was a crowned king, to be sure, but compared to the Ayatollah's political program, the monarch's modernization plan for Iran made up for any personal shortcomings.)

For example, Jimmy Carter’s Ambassador to the UN, Andrew Young, described Khomeini as “some kind of saint.” (To which George Will responded with a classic putdown, remarking that sainthood “is not what it used to be.”) 

And Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, saw the Ayatollah as “an effective barrier against Soviet influence,” Küntzel writes – and, apparently, thus a net foreign policy gain for the US, compared to the Shah.

Given all that has happened since the fall of the Shah, it’s clear that the Ayatollah’s rise to power managed to induce not just wishful thinking, but something more like delusion, among people who should have known better.

When you consider the long-term price of US policy-makers' wishful thinking about the Ayatollah, the successors of those policy-makers must beware of falling into another fit of wishful thinking, this time concerning the protests in Egypt.

Let’s not assume the demonstrators are saints, just because they know how to text-message each other. Let's not assume they are well-intentioned, just because they use Twitter.

And let’s remember, as Tim P. Carney says, that line about “entangling alliances.”

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Neil Hrab

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