What a shifting Egypt means for the U.S.

For an administration that claims there is no conflict between our interests and our values, the Obama administration has sure seemed to have a difficult time balancing U.S. interests in a stable Egypt with the U.S. values of a democratic Egypt.

The administration is in a legitimately tough position deciding how much support to continue giving an authoritarian government that has proved useful to us. But as the protests have worn on, the president, like Secretary Clinton, hit a better balance, calling on the Mubarak government to set in motion a transition to free elections. Vice President Biden was characteristically maladroit, claiming Mubarak was not a dictator and explaining that all the Egyptian protesters were seeking was "a little more opportunity." The Pentagon was characteristically calm and forward leaning, reaching out to the Egyptian defense establishment -- which is indistinguishable from the Egyptian government at its highest levels -- to urge professionalism and restraint.

The Egyptian military has already delivered on the only important near-term military request the United States is likely to make: not using force against the protesters. How might democratization in Egypt affect U.S.-Egyptian military cooperation? Short of an Iranian-style Islamic government overtly hostile to the United States, Mubarak's departure is unlikely to affect military cooperation with the United States. The United States does not actually rely on the Egyptian military for much militarily, and most of that which the United States does is very much in their interests to continue. But it could affect Egyptian-Israeli cooperation, with enormous consequences for the United States.

For military purposes, the United States relies on the Egyptian government in three main ways: 1) acting as a transit for U.S. military forces, 2) preventing Egypt from becoming a base for terrorist activity that would affect the United States, and 3) protecting Israel.

Looking at a map of the Middle East suffices to explain the importance of shipping transit through the Suez Canal. For Atlantic-based navies, it allows direct access from the Mediterranean Sea through the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Air transit would be less affected given the number of alternative paths, but is still significant. The canal has been closed only twice in its history: during the 1956 British-French-Israeli attack and during the 1967 war with Israel. An Egyptian government so anti-American that it would close Suez transit to American military vessels would essentially be another Iran; while possible (the Iranian revolution became more revolutionary as it progressed), it is the extreme case. 

More likely would be an Egyptian government concerned about assisting U.S. military operations in wartime. While a closure of the canal would be complicating, it could be compensated for with time to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, bringing Pacific-based fleets into action, using overland or air transit, or operating from the Mediterranean with longer-range strikes (and over flight rights from other countries). In terms of the Suez Canal, Egypt could impose significant time and cost penalties, but would not have a chokehold on U.S. military operations.

The Mubarak government has long claimed its domestic repression is essential for preventing violent Islam from emerging as a political and military force in Egypt. That claim is about to be put to the test. Any new government acceptable to protesters would need to relax internal controls. The Muslim Brotherhood will surely see prison releases and is likely to participate in political life. Whether that results in more domestic violence is unclear; my guess is likely less rather than more if people can get redress of grievances through political means. But it could make Egypt more tempting as an operating area for al Qaeda and diminish U.S. military and intelligence cooperation in managing the problems. I think it unlikely that even a tepid-toward-the U.S. government in Egypt would limit military and intelligence cooperation on terrorism. Egypt has too much to lose should Mubarak be proved right about the magnitude of Islamist threat.

The Egyptian military remains a respected institution in the political life of the country and is unlikely to be ostracized by a new government, especially after refraining from violence against protesters. This makes a major breach between the U.S. and Egyptian militaries unlikely, and a major al Qaeda foothold in Egypt unlikely. What could easily unfold would be a slow Islamization of the military, as we have seen in Turkey.

An Islamic military would badly complicate the third way in which the United States relies on Egypt militarily, which is protecting Israel. The fundamental bargain Anwar Sadat made, strategic realignment to the West and peace with Israel, could very well come into question under a new governing constellation in Egypt, too. Israel could probably win a conventional war against Egypt, even if the United States did not begin to restrict arms transfers and military aid to Egypt (which we surely would if it reneged on the Israel peace deal). But the safe flank Egypt gives Israel and the myriad ways Egypt assists in managing Palestine would be an enormous loss.

While unpopular (some effigies of Mubarak hanged this week had Stars of David on their faces), the peace deal is both a lucrative and a strategically sound one for Egyptian governments of any but a stridently Islamist stripe. But given the concern already demonstrated by Saudi Arabia about popular revolt in Egypt, it is conceivable a new government could see value in adopting a popular policy that brought Egypt back into the Arab fold. Perhaps it could gain also Egypt more assistance from the Gulf Cooperation Council states. 

But a return to conflict with Israel has significant political, economic, and military costs for Egypt. Egypt and Israel have common problems managing Palestine, limiting Iranian arms and influence, and preventing radicalization in Egypt; those commonalities have kept the peace deal. And the United States would not be without assets in negotiating with any new Egyptian government, not least the $1.3 billion in military assistance we annually provide it.


Shadow Government

Is Obama about to go wobbly on North Korea?

After campaigning on the untenable promise that he would meet with leaders like Kim Jong Il without preconditions, President Obama has actually approached North Korea with a firmness that sometimes eluded the Bush administration in its last year. The Obama administration has strengthened trilateral security coordination with Japan and South Korea; implemented tough U.N. Security Council sanctions against the North after its nuclear tests; and rebuffed Chinese pressure for emergency six-party talks in the wake of Pyongyang's unprovoked attacks on South Korea. Given the North's escalating provocations and nuclear cheating and Beijing's dangerous complacency, this is the only strategy that has a prospect of deterring further belligerency and reversing the incentives the North sees in proliferation on the peninsula and beyond.

This past week, however, senior Japanese and South Korean officials are reporting that the administration has begun signaling to them that the United States is ready to "shift back to dialogue" with the North. The Blue House in Seoul now feels under pressure to accelerate its own resumption of North-South dialogue so that U.S.-DPRK talks can get under way (since the administration has rightly stated that it would not get ahead of its ally South Korea's own diplomacy toward Pyongyang). In Tokyo there is an eerie sense of déjà vu at yet another potential swing in the pendulum of U.S. North Korea policy. Both Tokyo and Seoul want some dialogue with the North, and the administration deserves credit for how closely it has coordinated strategy with both capitals. But since the Hu Jintao visit to Washington, the dynamic seems to have shifted from U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral pressure on China to rein in the North to a new pattern of U.S.-China pressure on Seoul to pick up the pace of engagement (that, at least, is how one senior ROK official put it to me). Given our inconsistent history on North Korea to date, one can understand why our allies would be a bit nervous about where all this might go.   

Dialogue is not bad, as long as the expectations are realistic. What are the administration's expectations? Three possibilities come to mind: one of them would be delusional, one potentially problematic, and one quite reasonable.

The delusional expectation would be that Pyongyang is ready to deal on nuclear weapons. While some administration allies on the progressive left make this argument, I do not think anybody in the senior levels of the Obama administration believes it … and for good reason. Pyongyang has announced it will be a full nuclear-weapons state by 2012 and is unapologetically violating every agreement it has ever made in order to get there.    

The second expectation could be that dialogue is necessary in order to de-escalate from last year's pattern of confrontation and crisis. This logic is correct, but only up to a point. My Georgetown University and CSIS colleague Victor Cha issued a report last May that tracked 60 years of inverse correlation between U.S.-DPRK dialogue and North Korean provocations (i.e., when we are talking, the North Koreans tend not to blow things up). This report has apparently resonated in the administration and animated the discussions about re-engaging the North. However, as Victor points out, the data does not necessarily demonstrate a causal link between dialogue and lack of North Korean provocations. In fact, on most occasions the North Koreans walked out of talks unilaterally and then conducted nuclear tests or military provocations. In other words, Pyongyang has retained control over when dialogue will be an obstacle to its own desired proliferation or military actions. Moreover, talks have rarely prevented the North from continuing with proliferation activities clandestinely, as we have learned with increasing clarity after the fact. Finally, there is a danger that our own obsession with reducing tensions through dialogue could actually create more tensions in the long run, since Pyongyang will always be in a position to manufacture new crises when it wants to up the ante. It would be an enormous mistake to assume yet again that the danger of war means we need dialogue more than Pyongyang does. When that happens, we start paying for the dialogue by easing tensions in ways that only help the North advance its primary goal of nuclear weaponization and increased pressure on us.

The third possible reason for talking would be as a complement to the current strategy of alliance-centered deterrence, interdiction, pressure on the North's overseas financial and technology arteries (including in China) -- and preparation for possible change in the North post-Kim Jong Il. In this context, reliable communication channels with the North could help clarify strategic signals (in terms of both sticks and potential carrots), increase understanding of North Korean tactical intentions in a crisis, and probe over time the possibility for more substantial negotiations. However, expectations of negotiated outcomes would remain low, as would our willingness to invest in the process by reducing pressure on the North. If this is the administration's perspective, our defensive measures with Japan and South Korea and our efforts at interdiction and sanctions implementation would be redoubled in light of Pyongyang's determined push to mount nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles, regardless of whether we are talking to them in Beijing or some place.       

My guess is that the administration's debate about engaging North Korea is somewhere between reasons two and three. Hopefully, they are closer to reason three, and the architects of the strategy will proceed knowing exactly what they think they can achieve from dialogue and what it would be worth. Otherwise, it is will far too easy to slip into a process with the North where we become more afraid of ending talks than they are of our deterrent power. Let's talk, but let's not go there again.