Shadow Government

Avoiding the Mubarak pyramid scheme

The policy debate over whether to press autocratic yet "friendly" regimes on democracy and human rights is often cast as "values versus interests" or "realism versus idealism," but in the case of Egypt it is better framed as the trade-off between short-term and longer-term interests (or even medium-term, considering President Hosni Mubarak's age of 81 and his regime's brittleness). For a dwindling time longer, Mubarak might continue to offer a degree of stability and be a sometimes reliable partner on regional peace and security issues. But his remaining time in office is finite, and there are positive ferments for reform brewing in Egypt that are in the strategic interest of the United States to support. In a sign of the times, even Mohammed El-Baradei, frequently nettlesome in his former role as head of the IAEA, has emerged in the unlikely reincarnation as one of Mubarak's most energetic electoral challengers.

Jackson Diehl points out as much in his excellent column urging the Obama administration to seize the democracy agenda in Egypt as a strategic opportunity in a troubled region. And he is right. But the Obama administration seems to see this as more of an annoyance than an opportunity, at least judging by its damaging cuts imposed over the past year on U.S. democracy funding in Egypt. Besides whacking the budget from $45 million to $20 million, perhaps even more damaging was the Administration's imposition of new regulations prohibiting any USAID funding going to groups not approved by the Egyptian Government -- which happen to be precisely the same groups that are the most potent reformers and that most need the funding.

While the concern is sometimes raised that visible US funding for reformers risks "tainting" them, the fact remains that the democracy funding was only given to Egyptians who applied for it aware of and willing to assume any risks. And several groups and individuals -- such as Safwat Girgis, Ahmed Samih, Radio Horytna, and the Egyptian Center for Human Rights -- have been willing to appeal publicly for U.S. funding and support in the wake of the budget cuts. Even more important than the funding itself can be the display of American moral support for democracy activists, which can increase their sphere of protection and alert autocratic regimes of the heightened diplomatic cost to any repression.

This is linked to economic reform as well. The Egyptian state monopolizes not only political life but also too much of the economy, and even though its economic growth rates have accelerated in recent years they have not kept pace with a burgeoning population. The Mubarak regime's autocratic constraints on political and economic liberty have atrophied what could otherwise be a vibrant middle class and civil society. Instead, Egypt remains mired in a negative cycle in which lack of economic opportunity leaves large numbers of un- or under-employed citizens (especially young men), who in turn have few outlets for constructive political expression -- hence in part the persistent appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite a rich intellectual and cultural history, abundant natural resources, and strategic location, Egypt continues to chronically under-perform in most political and economic development metrics. For example, in the Legatum Prosperity Index, Egypt ranks in the global bottom third on economic fundamentals, and among the world's lowest on democratic institutions, governance, personal freedom, and even social capital -- the last factor indicating that Egyptian citizens distrust not only their government but also each other.   

What to do? The Obama administration should at a minimum pursue a three-part strategy. First, restore -- better yet, increase -- funding for beleaguered democracy and human rights activists, and do not let the Egyptian government decide who receives the grants. Second, as Jay Hallen argues here, transform economic development programs so that funding helps support urban Egyptian entrepreneurs and access to capital for growing small and medium size enterprises.  Third, senior U.S. officials -- especially President Obama and Secretary Clinton -- should consistently and publicly support the principles of religious freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and open electoral competition in Egypt.

Implementing these points by no means precludes also working constructively with Mubarak, who still is Egypt's leader and can sometimes be a helpful ally. But the current "Mubarak-only" policy is short-sighted and ineffective. Moreover, it is a policy of Mubarak's own devising -- as he has squelched liberal political dissenters and presented himself as the essential strongman who is the only alternative to Islamic extremists -- and not a policy in the American interest.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

A wise commander minds morale in the ranks

Two recent items for the civil-military file caught my eye.

First, is the curious case of Lt. Col Terry Lakin, an Army physician who released his own video  explaining why he refused to deploy to Afghanistan. His rationale: he believes that the orders sending him to Afghanistan are illegitimate because President Obama has not proven (to Lakin's satisfaction) that Obama was born on U.S. soil as the Constitution requires. Accordingly, Lakin refused to report for duty and the administration has decided to subject him to a court martial.

Lt. Col. Lakin is being touted as a hero in some quarters, but this is an easy call. Regardless of the merits of the claims of birthers, the Army is doing the right thing in punishing Lakin. The legitimacy of Obama's election has been validated by a constitutional process, and he was sworn into office by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (twice!). Lakin has no more standing to privilege his interpretation of the evidence and the Constitution than do other soldiers who may claim that the war in Iraq is illegitimate because Congress did not vote on a declaration of war. Our system of democratic civil-military relations would crumble if military officers arrogated to themselves the job of enforcing constitutional interpretations that were rejected by the rest of the political system.  

To me, the crucial issue is the provenance and competence of the person making the charge.  If Lt. Col Lakin was claiming that he had privileged information about some sort of illegality - say, for the sake of argument, that he was assigned as a military aide to President Obama and, in that capacity, witnessed personally something that no one else knew about -- then he might be covered by an extraordinary exception to the civil-military rule. That is not the case here.  He has no more facts about Obama's birth than anyone else; he is just saying that he finds the facts in the public domain unpersuasive. What Lakin and his backers are doing is very corrosive of healthy civil-military relations and they should stop. The court martial will likely put a stop to it.

Second is the release of the annual Military Times survey of its subscribers (unfortunately, the news reports and poll details are behind a subscriber firewall). This survey is not a random probability sample of the entire military, but it is a serviceable sampling of career-oriented military personnel (both officer and enlisted) and because it has been administered the same way for several years now, it is especially useful for tracking changes over time.  

Two newsworthy bits from this poll. First, the percentage of respondents reporting a Republican affiliation has dropped markedly since 2004 and the percentage reporting as Independents has increased during the same interval. The Military Times survey may exaggerate the decline. A Georgetown University Ph.D. dissertation by Heidi Urben that I helped supervise, and that did have a random probability of Army Officers (not enlisted, and not the other services), showed no such decline, but did show that Army officers were "weak partisans." These two different poll results may be capturing the same underlying phenomenon: that the officer corps is slowly moving away from a strong identification with the Republican Party. For those of us who champion a non-partisan military as a bedrock for healthy civil-military relations, this is good news.  

The second bit of news may be a bit harder to code: the Military Times survey showed that respondents graded President Obama fairly low in terms of his performance as President and as Commander-in-Chief, and markedly lower than the ratings they gave President Bush at the end of his term.  A plurality also said the President should defer to the generals and admirals in setting wartime strategy (Urben's dissertation showed only one-third of Army officers held that view).  These results may simply reflect partisan views; or it may reflect the military's lack of confidence in President Obama, something that the President has been unable to rectify in his first 15 months in office. Or they may signal greater unease with the prospects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; military optimism in Afghanistan dropped markedly over previous surveys, though respondents were more optimistic about Iraq than they had been in earlier surveys.  

My sense is that Obama can safely discount the viewpoints of Lakin and other military officers who question his legitimacy as Commander-in-chief. But he would be wise to take seriously those who question is efficacy as Commander-in-chief. He is the boss regardless and America's good record of civilian control does not look to be in any serious jeopardy. But a wise Commander-in-Chief pays attention to the morale in the ranks.

Jang Dong-Min-pool/Getty Images