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Anti-government demonstrators hurl stones at pro-government opponents during clashes at Cairo's Tahrir square February 3, 2011. (Marco Longario / AFP/Getty Images/Marco Longario / AFP/Getty Images)
Anti-government demonstrators hurl stones at pro-government opponents during clashes at Cairo's Tahrir square February 3, 2011. (Marco Longario / AFP/Getty Images/Marco Longario / AFP/Getty Images)

Doug Saunders

The trouble with Egypt: What will Obama make of this? Add to ...

Not only did the papers reveal how thoroughly the old logic of the peace process had collapsed - how absolutely everything had been attempted and failed - but they also revealed, and actually helped to accelerate, the end of the strategy of legitimizing Mr. Abbas's movement and marginalizing Gaza's Islamists. This occurred just as relations between the U.S. and Israel had reached a deadlock, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defying every effort of Mr. Obama to create an opening or even to halt the construction of new settlements in order to restart talks.

Given this, it may not be so much that Mr. Obama has made a sudden shift from pragmatism to idealism as that American national interests have changed. Republicans and many Democrats traditionally argued that having friendly, autocratic Arab regimes matched with an Israeli stalemate was valuable as a source of "stability." But that structure, put into place when America's chief fear in the Middle East was Soviet-backed communism rather than Islamic extremism, has not been yielding much stability lately. It has become all too apparent that the violent actions of al-Qaeda and other movements have been spurred and provoked, rather than quashed, by Arab authoritarian regimes.

Israel's peace agreement with Egypt and its tacit understanding with Jordan, in this light, were not the first steps toward a wider peace, but the end points of a failed process. The sealed southern border with Egypt has turned the Palestinian refugees of Gaza into a desperate and increasingly radical community, isolated from the broader Arab world. The old "stability" was the root cause of the new instability.

So, while a few voices from the Republican Party (such as former United Nations ambassador John Bolton) have suggested that Mr. Obama is spineless or is selling out America's best interests, the party's mainstream generally has fallen in behind the Democratic President this week.

With good reason: What's happening in the Middle East this year, an apparent cascade of popular-democratic revolutions, is almost exactly what George W. Bush was attempting to spur by invading Iraq. The neo-conservative thinkers who had his ear in his first term virtually spelled out this scenario in their Project for a New American Century manifesto: The only challenge, they said, would be to make the newly empowered Arab voters side with the U.S. for having inspired them. But Mr. Bush backed away, eventually, after Iraq failed and his modest push toward Arab democracy brought Islamists to power in Gaza.

While Mr. Obama appeared embarrassingly awkward in his tiptoe toward support for Egypt's democracy movement this week, the hesitancy was understandable: Egypt marks the nadir of a certain path in U.S. foreign policy, beyond which is a blind step into the unknown.

There are two possible outcomes, and they may arrive quickly. The first is that the new Middle East becomes a bold symbol of America's new irrelevance in world affairs and of the U.S. president's impotence; the newly emboldened Arab publics, already harshly anti-American, turn even further from the United States, embracing new powers to the east or even Islamic parties; and Israel remains an American ally, but its old hope as an anchor of democracy in the region will be long forgotten, its fate in its own hands.

However, there is another option. The democracy movements in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere have not been explicitly anti-American: Burning Uncle Sams or stars of David have not been their icons, and those messages haven't seemed to interest the protesters. This could be an opening for the U.S. to engage in a more realistic way with the people of the region, bypassing or abandoning the unrepresentative, autocratic leaders who have never had much legitimacy. The old "Cold War logic" never actually made sense: It was anti-democratic and it prevented the economic progress that might have ended the terrible impoverishment of the Arab people and, with it, their increasing radicalization.

Mr. Obama may have stumbled over Cairo, and he may yet trip over his feet into another, Afghan-style crisis of powerlessness - one that, given the symbolic importance of the Middle East to much of the world, could be terribly damaging.

But there is still an opening, one he created on his first presidential visit to Cairo almost two years ago. Most Arabs, rich and poor, remember his words in 2009: "I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the Untied States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

It is not too late to turn that "new beginning" from a platitude into an international policy. His ability or failure to make that happen may turn out to be his ultimate test.

Doug Saunders is a member of The Globe and Mail's European bureau.

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