What's the U.S. Up to in Egypt?
Over the past weekend Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Egypt for the first time since the election in late June of Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Dr. Muhammad Morsi. During her visit, Clinton not only met with the new president but also sat with Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the same military council that has been effectively ruling the country since Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011.
According to the New York Times, Clinton declared during her meeting with the Egyptian Islamist president that the U.S. "supports the full transition to civilian rule with all that entails" and emphasized the need for "building consensus across the Egyptian political spectrum." The following day Clinton met with Tantawi after which she declared that the U.S. would like to see the Egyptian military return to "purely national security role."
Across the region her statements were interpreted as a thinly disguised, yet conditional, pledge of support to the new president and a warning to the military not to upset the nascent democratic process in Egypt. Last month as the election results were deliberately delayed by the pro-SCAF Elections Commission the Washington Post reported that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned his Egyptian counterpart Tantawi in two separate phone calls not to alter the results in favor of the military's candidate and Mubarak's last prime minister, Gen. Ahmad Shafiq, but honor the will of the Egyptian electorate and the democratic process.
So what is one to make of the American policy in Egypt and the broader Middle East, especially after the Arab Spring?
After the rise of American global power in the aftermath of WWII, American global strategy focused for decades on its rivalry with the Soviet Union. The theatre of this conflict was mainly in Europe, as the Middle East was just a backdrop to this conflict between superpowers. The American strategy could simply be summed up during that time as: Keeping the Americans in, the Germans down, and the Soviets out.
With the collapse and disintegration of the communist empire, but especially after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration devised a new national security strategy that focused on the Middle East as its new theatre of operations launching three successive wars in a matter of few years: in Afghanistan, Iraq, and a broader so-called "war on terror." According to military strategist Thomas Barnett, for almost a decade the strategy of the American administration in the Middle East was: Keeping the Israelis strong, the Saudis safe, and the "fundamentalist radicals" out. During the last decade, as the United States expended massive resources on fighting elusive and largely unidentified groups, the world witnessed the rise of other global and regional powers (not only China in the pacific and a reconstituted Russia but in other regions as well) challenging American hegemony around the world.
During the first year of the Obama administration, a fundamental re-evaluation of American global strategy concluded that the source of real long term threats to American power and hegemony did not stem from the Middle East or Islamic radicals, though still posing some significant security threats, but rather from a more assertive China in the Pacific Rim region and a reconstituted Russia flexing its muscles against its neighbors. During this reassessment the Obama administration moved to scale down Bush's wars and tried to realign its new focus with a fresh approach in the Middle East geared towards regaining lost credibility with the people of the region by tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a move that failed miserably because of Israel's intransigence.
As the Arab Spring was increasingly taking hold across the region since early 2011, the American administration slowly adopted a policy of selectively abandoning its long-term dictator allies in favor of a new realignment in the region. Such managed transition, it is thought by American strategists, would not only preserve America's long term interests, but would also consolidate its capacity to face the new challenges as enunciated in the U.S. strategic vision of the new global threats.
Towards realizing its global strategy, the Obama administration summed up the American strategic interests in the Middle East as follows:
1) Protecting the security and legitimacy of Israel, despite the fact that the current Israeli government's attitude towards its conflict with the Palestinians is at odds with American interests and broader strategy. The Egyptian revolution has also opened the possibility of the annulment of the three-decade Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Thus, the preservation of this treaty has become a top priority not only in Washington, but also in Tel Aviv.
2) Maintaining stability in the region, especially in the Gulf countries in order to safeguard the free flow of oil at affordable prices. In this view, upsetting the balance of power in the region where independent or popular powers could rise to control the supply and price of oil could have a detrimental impact on the U.S. and global economy at a time of massive deficits in the U.S. and Europe. Needless to say, the control of oil as a global strategic asset gives the United States a tremendous advantage over other global powers such as China or Russia.
3) Securing major military bases in the region, such as the air force base in Qatar and the naval base in Bahrain, as well as keeping sea lanes and trade routes open, particularly in the Persian Gulf, and finally the effective control of the Suez Canal, especially at crucial times, by maintaining the strategic military alliance with Egypt. Such overbearing American military presence will keep this vital region in the U.S. column against its global rivals.
4) Isolating Iran and applying economic, military, political, and diplomatic pressures in order to not only reverse its nuclear program and accept limits on its rights for civilian nuclear technology, but also to curb its influence in the region, moderate its behavior, and possibly even induce regime change.
5) Keeping the markets in the region open for Western goods, technology, and investments, and free of protections for local goods, but more importantly keeping the global capitalist system intact.
6) Having the upper hand against not only Al-Qaeda, but also other so-called terrorist or radical Islamic groups in the region, by keeping military pressure mainly through special operations, military raids, and drone attacks. This strategy was also extended to include any group that might challenge U.S. military presence in the region.