Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Obama´s riddle: withdraw or keep military aid?
The Times - January 31st 2011

It is a sobering thought, for any European or American prone to proselytising for democracy and human rights, that this month´s events in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab dictatorships have had so little apparent connection to anything the West does or says. It is even a tad embarrassing that it is Al Jazeera, a broadcaster backed by the dictators of Qatar, that has been closed down first in Egypt and not either the BBC or CNN.

That embarrassment is, however, as nothing compared with the fact that the rulers being overthrown were previously known as our "strategic allies". We did little to bring them down—at least, Hosni Mubarak has so far paid no heed to the phone calls he has had from Barack Obama and David Cameron, urging him to democratise Egypt—and yet so far seem to have escaped direct blame for the rulers´ past sins. However, if that immunity from blame lasts it will be, shall we say, quite surprising.

Perhaps this is unfair. Perhaps Wikileaks´ revelations of America´s honest view of the Tunisian dictator´s venality and incompetence have played a part; perhaps, a loyal US spokesman might now say, the tough speech in Doha, the Qatari capital, on January 13th by Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, warning Arab governments that unless they reformed they would be in danger, might have caused a few ripples; perhaps the European Union´s "Barcelona Process" of talks with the other side of the Mediterranean over trade and aid amid muffled mumbles about political development made some minute difference. We don´t and can´t know. Like Hosni Mubarak right now, we need to be humble about our own powerlessness.

We shouldn´t, admittedly, be too self-deprecatory about this. Revolutions have always happened in unpredictable ways, at unpredictable times, making it impossible to say with any certainty why the crowds formed and the necessary sense of collective bravery emerged in one country at one time, and not in another country at another time. Contagion helps, and so does the dissemination of information about how an overthrow was organised, whether by internal groups, by outside lobbies such as the International Center on Non-Violent Conflict in New York, or just through western media coverage.

The main tool by which we can promote democracy and other freedoms is by our own conduct and example. The trouble is, that also includes our conduct towards the dictators. Everyone knows about Realpolitik, and most accept the need to do deals even with people we view with distaste, forever risking accusations of double standards, but Realpolitik leaves a trail, which is pretty likely eventually to be exposed. In a revolution, the archives are thrown open, previously silent people talk, and in an atmosphere of recrimination people look for culprits.

As that happens, in Egypt´s case especially the West is at serious risk of becoming a target for militant groups, a focus for new sorts of nationalism even amid a move to democracy, if or we hope when, the Mubarak regime does fall.

The trail is, as with most things, chiefly an American one. It dates back to the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, and the decision made at the time to give military aid to Egypt to represent a sort of balance to the aid given to Israel. Such promises really ought to be made with a sunset clause, since 32 years later the Mubarak regime is still receiving $1.3 billion of military aid each year from America, making it the second biggest recipient of American aid, after Israel. What to do about this aid is now going to become one of President Obama´s nastiest headaches.

If he is to be sincere and consistent in his calls for democracy and support for the Egyptian demonstrators, then he really ought to be threatening President Mubarak with the immediate withdrawal of the aid if he does not stand down and move to democracy. That would certainly place the Obama administration ahead of its predecessor, given that George W. Bush oscillated between public pressure on Egypt to bring in reforms and pusillanimity when it later locked up dissidents at a time when Egypt´s support became more crucial.

Yet he is caught in a trap of America´s own historical making: if he eliminates old accusations of double standards by now using financial leverage in Egypt, he will immediately be accused—justifiably—of a new double standard, given that he has been unwilling to use similar financial leverage on Israel over its illegal settlements.

The best course of action would be to cast the past aside. America, Britain and other European countries need to stand clearly and indubitably on the side of freedom and reform in Tunisia and Egypt, not only because that is right but also because it is prudent: they cannot know what might happen next, in other countries in this volatile region. So it would be a mistake to try to be too strategically clever, whether in supporting one country and not others, or in advocating particular forms of democracy over others. Tunisians and Egyptians need to decide that for themselves, and if like the Palestinian voters they end up choosing a party like Hamas, then so be it.

This surely means that the military aid to Egypt needs soon to be abolished, replaced diplomatically by an open promise of straightforward economic aid, investment and trade access, in order to avoid seeming to undermine the nation as a whole. If that is not done, then America risks finding itself having to decide on whether to continue sending aid to whatever new government emerges, be it liberal or from the Muslim Brotherhood militant group.

That also, however, means that America needs to grasp the Israeli nettle, and should be urged to do so by its British allies. The 1979 arrangement made sense at the time, and it may well still make sense to ensure through scientific and military co-operation that Israel has the military technology necessary to deter attacks. But sending it billions of dollars every year makes no sense at all, beyond making the West an enemy even of the new democratically elected governments we now hope will emerge. The world is changing, and our policies in the Middle East are going to have to change too.


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