The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged stevecook
Cook: The Egypt-US breakup

The U.S.-Egyptian Breakup | Foreign Affairs - Steve Cook:

The United States should greatly lower its expectations of what is possible in the post-Mubarak era and come to terms with the end of the strategic relationship. Expecting the new Egyptian president -- whoever that may be -- to carry on a partnership with Washington is like Václav Havel asking the Soviets for assistance after Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution in 1989. To be sure, there are no Havels in Egypt, and Washington is not Soviet-era Moscow -- but the analogy rings true enough for those people in Cairo's Tahrir Square or the Alexandria corniche who saw U.S.-made F-16s fly overhead or were choked by tear gas produced in the United States.

The urge among many in Washington to try to shape Egyptian political change betrays the belief that Egyptians have no agency, politics, or interests of their own. This attitude is the product of an old canard, popular among regime loyalists and some old Middle East scholars, that Egyptians are preternaturally passive and will always seek stability. Yet the nationalist revolution in 1919, the Free Officers'coup in 1952, the student revolts in 1968 and 1972, the broad-based opposition to Sadat at the end of his tenure in the early 1980s, and the last decade of street protests suggest otherwise. Clearly, Egyptians can help themselves.  

Turkey, Israel and the US
I have to take issue with my friend Steven Cook of CFR in his take on Turkey's recent behavior over the flotilla raid. Steve, a talented Turkey and Egypt expert, argues that Ankara is departing from its longstanding alliance with the US by "taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict": 

It is hard to admit, but after six decades of strategic cooperation, Turkey and the United States are becoming strategic competitors -- especially in the Middle East. This is the logical result of profound shifts in Turkish foreign and domestic politics and changes in the international system.

This reality has been driven home by Turkey's angry response to Israel's interdiction of the Istanbul-organized flotilla of ships that tried Monday to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. After Israel's attempts to halt the vessels resulted in the deaths of at least nine activists, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu referred to Israel's actions as "murder conducted by a state." The Turkish government also spearheaded efforts at the U.N. Security Council to issue a harsh rebuke of Israel.

Monday's events might prove a wake-up call for the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. Among the small group of Turkey watchers inside the Beltway, nostalgia rules the day. U.S. officialdom yearns to return to a brief moment in history when Washington and Ankara's security interests were aligned, due to the shared threat posed by the Soviet Union. Returning to the halcyon days of the U.S.-Turkish relationship, however, is increasingly untenable.

The aberration here is not Turkey is calling Israel's actions a murder, but the US in refusing to do the same. It is not Turkey that has acted aggressively towards Israel, but vice-versa — diplomatically for a while and now with violence. That Turkey has a regional policy at odds with Israel's is not an attack on the United States, and thinking it is implies a worrying assumption: that US policy should be driven by Israeli interests and desires. Turkey has not broken off diplomatic relations with Israel, or even its military purchases. But as the most democratic state in the Middle East, it has reacted in a manner commensurate with its public opinion and its desire for international respect. The same goes for Turkey's policy with Syria: Turkey's policy is driven by its own interests; whereas US policy is driven by a political desire to lend protection to Israel.
He concludes more timidly:
Given the mythology that surrounds the relationship, the divergence between Washington and Ankara has proved difficult to accept. Once policymakers recognize what is really happening, Washington and Ankara can get on with the job of managing the decline in ties with the least possible damage. Obama's goal should be to develop relations with Turkey along the same lines the United States has with Brazil or Thailand or Malaysia. Those relations are strong in some areas, but fall short of strategic alliances. "Frenemy" might be too harsh a term for such an arrangment, but surely "model partnership" is a vast overstatement. It's time to recognize reality.
Turkey is still a NATO member, houses a key US base and provides logistical support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That seems pretty special and more than what Brazil or Malaysia do. The country that needs to review its policy is the US.
Cook's analysis is echoed in Thomas "Toto" Friedman's latest column — always a bad sign. He begins, as he frequently, by talking about his anguish:
As a friend of both Turkey and Israel, it has been agonizing to watch the disastrous clash between Israeli naval commandos and a flotilla of “humanitarian” activists seeking to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Personally, I think both Israel and Turkey have gotten out of balance lately, and it is America’s job to help both get back to the center — urgently.
. . .
Therefore, it has been painful to hear the same Prime Minister Erdogan in recent years publicly lash out with ever-greater vehemence at Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza. Many see this as Turkey looking to ingratiate itself with the Muslim world after having been rebuffed by the European Union. I have no problem with Turkey or humanitarian groups loudly criticizing Israel. But I have a big problem when people get so agitated by Israel’s actions in Gaza but are unmoved by Syria’s involvement in the murder of the prime minister of Lebanon, by the Iranian regime’s killing of its own citizens demonstrating for the right to have their votes counted, by Muslim suicide bombers murdering nearly 100 Ahmadi Muslims in mosques in Pakistan on Friday and by pro-Hamas gunmen destroying a U.N.-sponsored summer camp in Gaza because it wouldn’t force Islamic fundamentalism down the throats of children.
I don't remember the United States, France, the UK or any other US ally going out of its way to condemn these things. On the other hand, Turkey's citizens have been killed and a ship flying its flag. Surely that's worse than something happening elsewhere for any country? And if Turkey is speaking out about the issue that has fueled regional tension for over 60 years — the Israeli/Palestinian conflict — surely that's not an irrational position.
After spending an inordinate amount of blood, treasure and political capital trying to regulate the Middle East according to a neoconservative idea of Israeli interests, the US has a unique opportunity to let strong regional leaders like Turkey try to manage issues that are of direct importance to them. It should not stand in the way; it should step aside.  
Update: Steve Cook responds:
I see your point about U.S. policy and how a democratic Turkey is taking a principled stand against the Israelis.  That said, two observations:
1)      It’s politically impossible for the United States to shift its position on Israel.  We saw that after Obama tried a more robust approach on settlements.  He backed down quickly, but I believe the episode demonstrates the limits of Washington’s actual room for maneuver.  It’s a problem, but the unfortunate reality.
2)      The central theme of the piece was the evolution of U.S.-Turkey relations, which you chose not to emphasize in your post.  I wasn’t really making a normative statement, I was making an observation that b/c Turkey is more democratic and b/c of changes in the international system, Washington and Ankara are diverging.  I was trying to wake up my friends in the administration to this reality so they can figure out what to do.
Some quibbles:
1)      Turkey’s military procurement from Israel is coming to an end; there is very little left in the pipeline once the soon to be completed main battle tank refurbishment program ends.
2)      The relationship between Turkey and Israel is collapsing.  It might not end completely, but the days of strategic cooperation are over.  It is politically unsustainable for both sides.
3)      Incirlik is important to the United States, but for how long?  The U.S. will be down to 50,000 soldiers in Iraq by August.  Those forces can easily be resupplied through Kuwait, though that isn’t optimal.  IF, a big if, the President is to be believed, the clock is also running on the Afghanistan operation.
4)      NATO.  Really?  It’s done.
Fair enough and 1 and 2 — I'm not complaining!
Cook on ElBaradei

Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations weighs in on the ElBaradei phenomenon in the house mag. The first part looks at what ElBaradei has done so far and the dilemma he presents the Mubarak regime, and then Cook tackles the potential for real change ElBaradei represents and how the US should react:

But it has become clear that although it continues to try to cut ElBaradei down to size, the regime recognizes the difficulties of completely marginalizing him. In fact, Mubarak and his advisers may let ElBaradei agitate, organize, and even run for president. An ElBaradei candidacy could actually help the regime in one important way: without being totally disingenuous, Mubarak and others in government could use the existence of a credible presidential contender as a demonstration of Egypt’s political reforms.

At the same time, an ElBaradei candidacy would put enormous strains on Egypt’s historically fractious opposition, with the resulting splits playing into Mubarak’s hands. Not to mention that Egypt’s Interior Ministry is well versed in the dark arts of vote rigging -- though outright manipulation would be a more difficult endeavor if ElBaradei indeed proves to be a widely compelling candidate. The regime in Cairo needs to look no further than Tehran’s June 2009 electoral debacle to understand the risks involved.

The ElBaradei phenomenon has led to inevitable questions about what Washington should do. Some observers, including the editorial page of The Washington Post, have argued that ElBaradei’s return has created an environment in which the United States can play a positive role in advancing the cause of reform if the Obama administration approaches the ElBaradei “boomlet” with “less caution.” Such statements suggest that the Egyptian public cannot help itself and has no agency, interests, or politics of its own, thereby requiring Washington to intervene. This is demonstrably untrue, making such a policy prescription unwise.

Further, Egypt’s close relationship with the United States has become a critical and negative factor in Egyptian politics. The opposition has used these ties to delegitimize the regime, while the government has engaged in its own displays of anti-Americanism to insulate itself from such charges. If ElBaradei actually has a reasonable chance of fostering political reform in Egypt, then U.S. policymakers would best serve his cause by not acting strongly. Somewhat paradoxically, ElBaradei’s chilly relationship with the United States as IAEA chief only advances U.S. interests now.

It is not surprising that Mubarak cannot accurately read Egyptian society’s political desires and hopes. He is elderly, isolated, and has been out of touch for some time. Contrary to his recent declaration, Egyptians are looking for a hero. And they no longer want the false heroics of a discredited line of military officers. Instead, many seem deeply attracted to a bespectacled lawyer who appears to have the courage of his convictions. The ElBaradei sensation may end up being little more than a minor diversion in the eventual ascension of Gamal Mubarak to his father’s post, but it has revealed more than ever how thoroughly hollow and illegitimate the regime and its myths have become.

Several things to keep in mind:

  1. The idea that ElBaradei might give a cover of legitimacy to the regime is wrong-headed: he is building a broad coalition, the presidential elections are not his goal, spreading awareness of the need for reform is.
  2. I think Cook's reference to Iran's election is very apt: the upcoming parliamentary elections are going to be fraudulent with absolute certainty — they could not be otherwise when the last few years' elections were so horribly flawed, and when the Egyptian regime has reduced judicial oversight, opposes international monitors and appears to be moving towards reducing civil society monitoring.
  3. I agree with Cook the US does not need to support ElBaradei. But it needs to actually speak out on the conduct of elections and the issue of monitors. This is crucial and self-evident because a) the US has invested in election training, and therefore should follow through and b) the Obama administration's downplaying of elections in its vision of democracy, while perhaps well-intended, will be seen as an invitation to fraud by regimes such as Egypt's. Elections aren't everything, but technically they are at the center of the democratic process.
  4. Cook is absolutely spot on in the last paragraph: the ElBaradei campaign is delegitimizing the regime, but it is only the latest thing to do so, starting at least with the Kifaya movement. This is how Kifaya — long ridiculed by many analysts — has been crucial and historic.

It was interesting to see that ElBaradei attended Friday prayers at al-Azhar yesterday, it's a perfect move to deflect the "Westernized elite" accusation against him, which is Egyptian culture wars code for "he's not a devout Muslim" or "he has a anti-Islam secularist agenda." His challenge is to assert authority and authenticity without resorting to crass populism, something rarely seen in Egyptian politics.

One more think: I don't know when Cook wrote this piece, but he writes about the Facebook group for ElBaradei:

By late February, Egyptian bloggers and journalists were reporting that one thousand people were joining ElBaradei’s Facebook page every ten minutes. This story is surely apocryphal, but it is nonetheless worth noting that ElBaradei currently has 82,069 Facebook supporters, compared to Gamal Mubarak’s 6,583.  

Actually, right now the Facebook group has over 203,000 members.

Links for 08.20.09
En Egypte, l'hébreu, in cha' Allah! | Very interesting feature on Hebrew call center in Cairo, doing Microsoft Windows activation for Israelis and the reactions its customers get ("You khare khegyptian and you speak khebrew?") [French]
Mohammad Dahlan (MohammadDahlan) on Twitter | Another funny fake: "As'ad abukhalil LYING AGAIN. I stay n Cairo not bcuz I scared of my people but because I have medical condition & must eat KFC 4 every meal"
Abdelmonem Said - Road to Mideast Progress Runs Through Cairo - | Said, presenting the Egyptian govt view. Or one of its views.
» The Egypt we have Middle East Strategy at Harvard | Steve Cook and others think Hosni pwnd Barack: "a meeting that is notable for its general lack of newsworthiness."
US complains to Israel on Palestinian-American entry rules - Yahoo! News | Discrimination against Pal-Americans "unnaceptable."