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February 04, 2011

A Tale of Four Not So Great American "Allies"
Posted by Michael Cohen

I've generally avoided writing anything about the situation in Egypt because it seems there are already enough people who know very little about Egypt publicly saying something - or have a personal agenda in commenting on the crisis.

Still I couldn't help but note an interesting linkage between what's happening with the United States in Egypt and three other countries in the Middle East and South Asia.

First there is Egypt where the day after the President of the United States called on our long-standing ally to begin a peaceful transition toward democracy and respect the will of its people . . . that same ally responded by sending thugs into Tahrir Square to beat up pro-democracy demonstrators. In effect, he spit in the eye of a US president.

In Pakistan, the US remains embroiled in a row with the Pakistani government over the continued detention of a US diplomat, Raymond Davis, who is accused to killing two people who allegedly tried to rob him. Now granted this is a complicated issue, but it's at pace with the frosty relationship between the US and Pakistan, which of course includes the continued refusal by Pakistan to end support for Taliban insurgents battling US forces in Afghanistan - or deal with the jihadist terrorists who want to kill Americans that continue to reside there.

In Afghanistan, the international community (including the US) had to drag our ally Hamid Karzai kicking and screaming to finally agree to seat the Afghan Parliament - and of course he remains an uncertain ally in the fight against the Taliban.

Finally, there's Israel and the Obama Administration's admission of defeat last December that it could ever get the Netanyahu government to freeze settlement building in the West Bank. 

What do these four countries have in common - well besides the fact that they are among the four largest recipients of US foreign aid? Each in their its own unique way is either fundamentally undermining US interests or is thumbing its notes nose at US demands. 

What's the conclusion that we should draw from this bizarre phenomenon?

In the case of Egypt and Israel we've defined our interests in regard to these two countries completely wrong. We've fetishized stability or influence (which granted are important) But we've done so at a cost to US image in the region - and as we are learning right now we haven't really gotten much stability in return. Indeed, when push comes to shove both Israel and Egypt (not to mention Afghanistan and Pakistan) elect to ignore us when they feel the behavior we're urging runs contrary to their perceived interests. And that's all well and good for Israel and Egypt to make those decisions (I for one applaud countries acting in their perceived self-interest!). But why then do we prize these relationships and also provide billions in assistance when both countries feel quite comfortable ignoring us when our interests and their interests diverge? Shouldn't all that aid buy us something in return other than a peace agreement that both countries currently seem to value - and shouldn't we be willing to use it as a lever to encourage policy changes that we support? 

Now I suppose nothing about this is terribly surprising; allies diverge in their interests all the time. But what's odd is that we seem to have flipped around that old maxim about permanent interests and permanent allies - the only thing that maintains permanence in US foreign policy these days is our allies . . . even when our interests change.

That leads to the next point; the way we define our interests is not the way our "allies" define their interests. Not surprisingly Hosni Mubarak doesn't feel like committing political suicide because all of a sudden we become very interested in seeing democracy take root in the Middle East. Israel doesn't feel much like stopping settlement expansion or taking risks for peace simply because the US wants to improve its image in the Arab world. And in Pakistan, they don't have much interest in cracking down on the Afghan Taliban or perhaps ending its support for jihadist terror groups simply because we're trying to extricate ourselves from a war next door. 

None of these are minor disagreements; in some respects they go to the heart of our bilateral relationships - so again at the price of maintaining "stability" or what we think is stability we are allowing our short-term interests in the region to suffer.

The saddest part of this is that we seem to have convinced ourselves that if we just find the right mix of carrots and sticks we can convince each of these countries to act in a way that furthers our interests - and acts against theirs. But do you notice how that never seems to work?

That leads to the last and perhaps most important point - we radically overestimate our ability to affect the behavior of other countries. Even with 100,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan we can't get Hamid Karzai to stop stealing elections and engaging in corruption; we pile billions upon more billions to Pakistan, we declare a new direction for US-Pakistan relations and nothing changes - OBL remains on the loose & the Pakistanis continue to support the Afghan Taliban. 

Now perhaps it's a failure to wield more sticks - but even here our influence is overstated. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, we can't really use sticks because our foreign policy misjudgments (in particular, fetishizing the war on terror) have created a situation in which we need these countries and their leaders more than they need us. We could use a stick against Israel but domestic politics won't allow it; and as for Egypt - the threat of "Islam" or the impact on the relationship with Israel holds us back (and this pre-dates the current uprising). 

So on the one hand you could say we have terrible allies - and you'd be right. But the better takeaway is that we prize our "friends" (who aren't really our friends) probably a bit more than we do our interests. If we were more clear-headed about what out actual interests are then we might do a better job of not getting involved in such dysfunctional bilateral relationships.

Moreover, one can't help but come away from an examination of US foreign policy over the past few months and conclude that we're not quite as powerful as we would like - and we dramatically overestimate our own ability to shape global affairs. There is a myth of American omnipotence on the world stage and granted we are a powerful and influential nation, but there are real and significant limits to that power - and we don't seem to do a very job of recognizing they exist.  

And to that final point a good part of the reason why we don't recognize the limits of our power is because we define our interests in a limitless manner and then assume that we have the diplomatic, political and military influence to shape those interests. Well, as we are seeing right now across a broad swath of the Middle East and South Asia, we don't. That is perhaps the best takeaway from recent events - the need for a bit more modesty and realism in how we conduct our foreign policy.


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