The Plagues of Egypt
Published on: February 2, 2011
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  • Mal
  • HappyAcres

    There is a solution: “No entangling alliances.”
    The Leviathan is not content to rule its own citizens; it’s compelled to meddle worldwide.

  • HappyAcres

    “No entangling alliances.” See, that was simple.

  • It’s true the Obama administration has no good choices here, but by announcing publicly that it will be happy to welcome the anti-American, anti-Israel, jihad-spawning Muslimn Brotherhood into the next Egyptian government as long as this movement pays lip service to democracy and nonviolence, the administration has needlessly given aid and comfort to our enemies.

  • Patton

    Much can be learned by studying the Suez canal crisis. In those days the british were ready to ally with France and Israel to take over this neuralgic axis. That would be totally unthinkable today. The situation is too unclear to dare such thing. But on the other hand Egypt is too important a country to let it shift away from our interest. As Mead says, no good answer to this problem exists. Obama is once again going to have some troubles on his hands. Poor fellow…

  • Luke Lea

    It’s nice to get some historical perspective.

    One quibble though: You write,”Americans should never forget that our own system rests on two acts of revolution. The first was the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in which the British (with enthusiastic support from most colonists) kicked out an abusive monarch and transferred the throne to rulers who promised to respect the rights of Parliament and people.”

    Having just read Trevelyan’s history of the Stuarts, it seems pretty clear that the revolution in England began with the Civil War and only culminated with the Glorious Revolution some 40-odd years later. It was a protracted process.

  • Luke Lea

    I’d like to hear your thoughts on the situation in Jordan. What are the chances for a shift towards constitutional monarchy governed by a parliamentary majority? How might that the effect the chances for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement?

  • The fluidity of the moment reminds me of an old Maria Muldaur gospel tune, the latter verses especially.

  • Anthony

    Egypt, North Africa…how the leadership public profile has changed since Nasser/Sadat. Is Mubarak really representative of Egypt (a country thousands of years old) in these turbulent times?

  • Dave Thomas

    I believe Mr. Mead’s statement that “…Americans watched the February Revolution drive Tsar Nicholas II from his absolute rule in one of our key allies in the conflict we were about to begin” is inaccurate.

    In fact it was the February overthrow of Nicholas II that removed a roadblock to United States intervention in WWI. We did not want to be allied with the most autocratic ruler in Europe, Nicholas II. The administration of Woodrow Wilson was never a closer ally of the Czar.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @ Dave Thomas: by February 1917 the US was clearly headed toward entry into the war and Germany not the US was in control of that process. It was very convenient that the Tsar fell when he did, but if Germany had continued with unrestricted submarine warfare, Wilson would have gone to war Tsar or no.

  • Another thoughtful piece. I find I agree with all of it. This statement sums up the current situation:

    “… American presidents frequently face unresolvable dilemmas. Sometimes there aren’t any good answers and no matter what you do, you will suffer.”

    I am a critic of the current administration, but I don’t see that they have good options in this case. Criticism of their handling of the situation has been over the top in some circles.

    Doug Santo
    Pasadena, CA

  • Longview

    I am not sure we have revolution in our DNA. We have the love of liberty in our DNA, but we did not face quite the same issue as those who overthrow dictators in own land. We were a colony that declared independence. The initiation of violence came from Britain who would not recognize our independence. Mr. Mead well describes the clash of our own values between reliably supporting an ally and promoting the love of liberty. We would do well to project as foreign policy that we can be counted on as an ally up to the point that you lose the support of your own people because of your own brutality. We will defend against foreign aggression, but our love of liberty will prevail if you lose the support of your own people. Mr. Mead’s dilemma remains: That policy would drive the brutal to rely on the brutal powers of the world instead of us. And how would we respond when the next power promises to be as or more dictatorial than the previous (note Iran)? But the people of the world would get the message that we won’t prop up their dicators against their own people.

  • EJM

    The events in Eqypt would present difficult choices for any Administration, but this one looks particularly blindsided, confused, and out of its depth.

    It’s first responses were late and incoherent. Any American President should be able to articulate American principles of human rights and self-determination. While picking Egypt’s leaders is not our business we could have said early on that we are supportive of peaceful change and a transition to a popularly elected government. Of course, we could have and should have done the same when Tehran was bursting with protestors in 2009 as well.

    Second, we should have welcomed Mubarak’s statement that he will step down at the end of his term. Although this does not satisfy the immediate demands of the protestors, cooler heads understand that Egypt needs many months at least for opposition parties to form and popular leaders to emerge. Mubarak has been our ally for 30 years. The least we owe him is a dignified and graceful exit.

    Finally, we do have influence with the leadership of the Egyptian Army which is the most powerful force inside the country. Their generals were at the Pentagon when the demonstrations started. We should enlist their help in maintaining order and guiding the country over the transition period. If they assure Mubarak’s departure in September and allow opposition parties to form, and free and fair elections to proceed under international monitors, while avoiding bloodshed, we will continue and even increase aid to a new moderate government.

    Insisting that Mubarak leave immediately to try to curry favor with the crowd in the streets of Cairo is both foolish and dangerous. Likely he will not succumb to this pressure, but if he did now, there would be a power vacuum, chaos and possibly civil war in Egypt which serves no one’s purpose except the radical Islamists.

  • Denny

    Dr. Mead, a very well informed article, as usual. However, regarding the Iranian revolution, many have accused the CIA for creating the Shah in the first place and thus the US for being actually responsible for planting the seeds for that revolution. Do you agree? Is there a degree of responsibility for being at least complacent in Egypt for the last several years? Or do you think that nothing could have been done?

  • Dave Thomas

    I agree completely Mr. Mead that the US would have entered the war eventually because of unrestricted submarine warfare.

    I simply feel it was inaccurate to portray the Czar as a key ally of the United States.
    An examination of editorials during the period shows vociferous criticism of the Czar used by isolationists to keep us out of the war before 1917, and that the Wilson state department was never in close alliance with the Czar’s government. Wilson certainly wasn’t happen with the alternatives that emerged either. When was the last time the United States approved of a government in Russia, Yeltsin?

    It bothered me to see that statement enough to offer the criticism. I enjoy your analysis immensely.

  • G. Rick Marshall

    Interesting history; I always learn from reading Professor Mead’s work but why in this 100th Anniversary month of President Ronald Reagan’s birth is the revolution that happened in Eastern Europe on his watch left out? Could it be that it doesn’t fit the theme?

  • This is an amazingly well-written historic overview of America’s options in foreign policy situations such as this. I’m not saying our choice is clear, or easy, but I stand behind what I feel we need to do.

    We must support an immediate removal of Mubarak, and create a coalition to help guide the construction/amendment of a new constitution.

  • Andrew

    Longview has it right: “We would do well to project as foreign policy that we can be counted on as an ally up to the point that you lose the support of your own people”

    The founding principles of this country make the price of any other foreign policy too high.

  • jack carlson

    The only way that “public anger” DOES create solutions, is when it removes corrupt and incompetent leaders and replaces them with people of integrity.

    This is what we are doing today in the USA with the Tea Party. We have the luxury of time, scheduled honest elections, and freedom of communication. Egypt has none of these.

    The author failed to mention that most of the revolutions he listed, that occurred outside the Anglosphere, resulted in the rise to power of despots. No, things do not look good.

  • Peter

    I agree with EJM. While the administration hasn’t bungled things entirely and has no perfect choices it has done what it has always done, interjecting itself at the wrong time, making seemingly snap decisions and issuing statements before thoroughly thinking through all the consequences.

    The contrast with what was (not) said when Iranians were protesting in large numbers on the street is particularly glaring. When marchers were chanting “Obama, Obama you’re either with them (the mullahs) or with us” the silence from the WH was deafening. Now, when a staunch ally is (justifiably) the target of similar protests we immediately call for his quick departure.

    Certainly we can no longer support Mubarak but the clear danger of Muslim fanatics taking control of Egypt is widely known by everyone. For that reason alone it behooves U.S. leaders (including many on the right who should know better) to say as little as possible in public and to do everything behind the scenes to ensure a peaceful transition that has the best chance of keeping the Islamic nut cases from power.

  • thibaud

    An incremental transition presided over by a gradually, steadily withdrawing Egyptian Army is the best path here. There is a precedent, as outlined by an expert on democratic transitions, Thomas Carothers, writing in The New Republic (which btw has probably the best, widest-ranging, most intelligent commentary to be found on the web re. this crisis and its implications).


    “Egypt’s historical path, societal makeup, economic conditions, and national character differ in many ways from Indonesia’s. Nevertheless, enough of its socio-political experiences and structures bear resemblance to Indonesia’s ten years ago—- from its newly assertive mix of idealistic young protestors, civic groups, and political opposition parties to its longstanding effort to balance secular and Islamist values—that Indonesia’s democratization offers some hope for Egypt. Accordingly, it is worth noting some of the keys to Indonesia’s successful transition.

    “First, the post-Suharto political renovation was inclusive despite the powerful mass rejection of the prior dictatorial order. The interim president moved quickly to allow freedom of expression and open the political space. Apparatchiks around the dictator managed to find a new political role for themselves through a transformed former ruling party that emphasized its technocratic capabilities. The army, which had played a key role in facilitating Suharto’s stepping down by refusing to violently repress the protesters, saw its political role greatly reduced but only bit by bit, through constant negotiations and compromises. Political parties of all sorts were allowed to flourish, despite the messiness of the initial elections and governments.

    “Second, once Suharto’s abrupt ouster was achieved, the transition became intensely legalistic and iterative. Indonesia put itself through seemingly endless phases of constitutional, electoral, and other legal reforms, carried out in a spirit of compromise. The vague but emotive reformist ideal was gradually translated into concrete institutions, rules, and procedures.

    “The serious pursuit of this detailed reform agenda helped Indonesians tolerate a transition period marked early on by a dubious post-dictator leader, disturbing outbursts of violence, economic woes, and the breaking off of East Timor.

    “Third, the United States and Europe overcame their suspicions of a political transition they had long dreaded and offered valuable assistance in support of elections, political party development, civil society strengthening, and legal reform….”

  • Andrew Ian Murphy

    This is of course only the begining…

    When the people finally get their hands on that evil dictator and traitor, and when they drag him across the sqaure with his arms getting pulled off and while the world watches as he’s hung by his feet with no head even still attached…then we will see the leaders of Arabia abdicate their throwns and run off to their Jewish masters in Israel or AMerica…

  • newageblues

    Woodrow Wilson sent troops to Russia after the October Revolution to try to defeat it. But what did he do to support the faltering democratically oriented Provisional Government in the months before it was overthrown by the Communists? The Russian people were starving, a democratic Russia was clearly a long term hugely important American objective, aside from the immediate war effort and the humanitarian issue, so where were the food shipments that should have been streaming to Russia? What a ghastly mistake Wilson made, alongside the more well known ghastly mistake he made of allowing Britain France and others to dictate unsustainably punitive peace terms to Germany, after the U.S. had won the war for them.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I think Reagan shows the way to deal with the problem of foreign revolutions, Marcos and the Philippines, find a graceful exit for the dictator including his ill-gotten gains, including the shoes. And assist the revolution with a democratic transfer of power.

  • JLK

    At least,thanks to the “evul: Bush, they have a template now with Iraq.
    Before it was Turkey alone but Turkey is a different country with different culture and grography.

  • Tom Kinney

    This article begins with a litany of previous revolutions in countries who’ve been our allies and the problems these scenarios have caused us. Let’s rework that construct into a simple question: Why, since we’ve experienced this so many times before, don’t we have a rough protocol for dealing with these situations? Sure these are trying events and certaintly there is no one-size-fits-all solution. On the other hand, the problem is always roughly the same; we back unsightly regimes for practical purposes but when they collapse we are revealed as the naked empire that’s just been caught backing retrograde rulers for its own gain. This is always followed by unanimous worldwide disapproval of our behaviors. Further, it makes us appear as hypocrites who covertly approve of anti-democratic activities at the same time as we proudly promote ourselves as avatars of democracy.

    Yet we are not wrong to do so. In an imperfect world, we do our best given our imperfections. No single past world power has been as benevolent as have we, despite our many faults and failures. So why after so many such setbacks do we continue to be surprised and unprepared for the inevitable fall of corrupt regimes that we’ve supported?

    While there’s no easy answer, policy wonks, of which we seem to have no shortage, should be commissioned en masse to provide one. Work those wonks until they come up with an workable answer, then shut them back up in their cells until they’re needed once again.

    The likely option to this approach is Pat Buchanan-like semi-isolationism. While this has long seemed a primitive solution, much like the fence between U.S. and Mexico he proposed 20 years ago, was laughed at heartily by all wise liberals and yet is now reality and prophecy, semi-isolationism has its appealling points and may yet be tried in exasperation in lieu of a feasible alternative. After all, these repeated revolutions in which we appear to have backed the wrong side–there generally being no right side to back–have weakened us internally through a loss of our collective self-confidence as we get caught again and again backing lesser monsters such as Mubarak. In the end, our prestige suffers while the world mocks us in that special glee reserved for the public humiliation of the all-powerful. And to what advantage to us?

    Why do we still need tens of thousands of troops in Germany 70 years after WWII and 20 plus years after the end of communism? For rapid deployment capability in the satellite/laser/stealth plane age? Isn’t the era of ground wars behind us? Do we even need ground troops?

    There’s no reason we can’t engage in earnest in the global economy while disengaging in global politics. Let the world see what they’re missing in our absence and let us see what consequences we face by not participating. At the very least, it would give us time to form a new perspective on all this before reengaging–were that to be our ultimate conclusion.

    If we can’t adapt to the constantly changing geopolitics of this increasingly dynamic and fluid world any better than this, we should consider retreating back to our one sure national responsibility; that of taking care of ourselves. If we continue to fail at that, not only do we grow weaker, the world weakens along with us and as we all know, or should know, there is no Plan B to the American prerogative.

  • Denis Fodor

    Granted that the administration’s problem in Egypt is perplexing. It might have proved less so. had it taken a position vis a vis the Egyptian revolutionaries similar to that adopted against the Green revolutionaries in Iran, namely an almost neutral one.
    Consistency makes people take one seriously. But now that we’ve damaged our alliance with the most populous nation in the Arab world, we really ought to undertake some serious damage control. I think we must retain
    a fulcrum on which to leverage our power
    in the Middle East. To provide this we now need to seriously court Turkey, the most populous nation there. Oh, and to make sure our remaining allies lend a hand in this endeavor.

  • Max Segal

    After the death of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, Kennedy said, “There are three possibilities in descending order of preference: a decent democratic regime, a continuation of the Trujillo regime, or a Castro regime. We ought to aim at the first, but we really can’t renounce the second until we are sure we can avoid the third.”

    We find ourselves today in a similar predicament with regard to Egypt, where Obama may be substituted in for Kennedy, Mubarak for Trujillo, and where an Islamist/anti-American regime is nearly the analogue of a Castro regime.

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