In a New York Times Op-Ed, two former U.S. officials, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon warn of the potential for Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood to engender Islamic extremism.
“Egypt’s crisis threatens to add fuel to the ongoing terrorist activity across North Africa and to spawn a new wave of attacks against Western targets just as the anti-Islamist crackdown that began in the late 1970s aided the rise of Al Qaeda,” they argue.
While the awful crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by the military coup regime in Egypt does run the risk blowing back right in their face, the risk of “a new wave of attacks against Western targets” is not a matter of course. In fact, the risk of anti-American violence by Islamic extremists is highly correlated with the level of U.S. interventionism in a place like Egypt.
Unfortunately, Washington refuses to budge from its traditional policy of supporting whatever brutal military regime that exists in Egypt so long as they abide by certain U.S. demands. And that’s where Benjamin and Simon get to the crux of the issue of U.S. policy.
America has no good options at present. There’s no upside to a confrontation with the military — only the prospect of losing more sway. An effective policy response will require close cooperation with the Egyptian security services, who caused the problem to begin with. And the need for American military access to the Suez Canal and continued Egyptian support for the peace treaty with Israel also preclude simply walking away from Egypt.
This is the customary formulation of why the U.S. needs to keep meddling in Egypt’s affairs: the Suez Canal and the 1973 peace treaty with Israel.
But as John Mearsheimer, a professor of international relations at Chicago University, recently explained, these arguments are “unpersuasive.”
“Given that Egypt…[has] little economic or military power and hardly any oil, advocates of global domination rely on a variety of other claims to make the case that [there] are core American interests,” Mearsheimer writes in The National Interest. But the peace treaty with Israel doesn’t necessarily depend on continued U.S. aid the way it did at its inception, and, to put it simply, Egypt is not about to attack Israel. “Israel is now so confident of its military superiority over its Arab neighbors that it is actually reducing its conventional forces,” Mearsheimer explains.
As for the Suez Canal…
One argument is that the United States should care greatly about Egypt because it controls the Suez Canal. Roughly 8 percent of global seaborne trade and 4.5 percent of world oil supplies travel through that passageway. Moreover, the U.S. Navy uses the canal to move ships from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. Thus, if Egypt were to close the canal, it would damage the international economy and complicate American efforts to project power into the strategically important Gulf.
This is unpersuasive. If Egypt closed the Suez Canal, it would not seriously hurt the international economy. Ships would be rerouted, mainly around the southern tip of Africa, and oil from the Middle East would be distributed to the recipient countries in different ways. Furthermore, Egypt would pay a significant economic price if it shut down the canal, which is its third-largest source of revenue and is sometimes referred to as an “economic lifeline.” Not only would Cairo lose the money generated by that passageway, but it would also risk economic and political retaliation by the countries hurt by the closing. It is worth noting that the canal was closed from 1967 to 1975 and the international economy experienced no serious damage.
So, even as these two former U.S. officials worry about the potential rise of extremism as a result of the U.S.-backed crackdown in Egypt, they refuse to let go of the groundless argument for continuing to intervene. Inconceivable, apparently, is the notion that we should just stay the hell out of it.