The administration has already condemned and deplored yesterday's violence. It must now make clear that an Egyptian regime headed by Hosni Mubarak is no longer one with which the United States can do business, and that a military which sanctions such internal violence is not one with which the United Staes can continue to partner. The Egyptian military must receive the message loudly, directly and clearly that the price of a continuing relationship with America is Mubarak's departure and a meaningful transition to a more democratic and inclusive political system. It must understand that if it doesn't do this, then the price will not just be words or public shaming but rather financial and political. If Mubarak remains in place, Egypt faces a future as an international pariah without an international patron and with no place in international organizations or forums. If he departs, and a meaningful transition begins, then Egypt can avoid that fate.
The rationale for Washington to nurture the Egyptian military is multi-fold. Among these reasons:
- Trying to split the military (for instance by encouraging a coup) would lead to uncertain results and may be more deadly than the repression taking place in Cairo.
- The military could simply refuse and the US would lose a valuable channel of communications with the regime.
- US weapons manufacturers and their lobby do not want to lose $1.3 billion in annual military aid which mostly subsidizes the domestic industry. Lawmakers do not want to be accused of sacrificing US jobs in the current economy.
- Cutting ties with the Egyptian military could radicalize or destabilize the regime, giving way to a strategic shift away from the US with no discernible gain.
- Israel and its lobby want the regime to remain in place and have effective control of most of Congress.
While some of these may have some validity, there is a bigger point to be made that is not about the welfare and interests of Egyptians or Israelis. It is about what kind of country the US wants to be. The US makes morally repugnant decisions all the time for the sake of national interest, as in policy towards China. I'm not a policy idealist and don't expect much otherwise But here we have a crisis that has unveiled itself with incredible intimacy to viewers (and net surfers) around the world. The political stakes are much higher for the Obama administration, and the expectations among the people in the region are also much higher.
The US can resist a wave of change that is sweeping the Arab world and risk ending up on the losing side. Or it can ride it and take the risk that some revolutions and political upheavals won't work. In Egypt in particular, this is an ideal occasion for the US to extract itself from the Camp David triangle (which is too rigid a framework for the post-Cold War world) and renegotiate its aid relationship with both Israel and Egypt on a bilateral rather than trilateral level. I doubt Egypt wants war with Israel, and think an Egypt less beholden to Israel would be a good thing for the region as whole, as it would discourage Israeli excesses and maximalism.
But most important of all, it's the right thing to do.
P.S. If you've ever had any doubt that the Israel lobby is a nasty and pernicious influence on American politics and policy, check these few examples out:
P.P.S. Helena Cobban has a different take on the aid issue, but I think she overstates Egyptian commitment to the Palestinian cause in her argument.