By Scott Shane, New York Times, February 6, 2011
Supporting Egypt’s military-led regime over four decades, first under Anwar el-Sadat and then Mr. Mubarak, offered strategic benefits to seven American presidents. They got a staunch ally against Soviet expansionism, a critical peace with Israel, a bulwark against Islamic radicalism, and a trade- and tourist-friendly Egypt. What they did not get was a functioning Egyptian democracy. The apocryphal comment about a foreign strongman often attributed to Franklin Delano Roosevelt sums it up nicely: he may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.
History is rich with precedents. In 1959, there was Fulgencio Batista of Cuba, darling of American corporations and organized crime, fleeing with an ill-gotten fortune of $300 million as Fidel Castro’s troops reached Havana.
In 1979, it was Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, abandoning the throne in the face of a revolt two years after President Jimmy Carter toasted his country as “an island of stability.”
In 1986, the turn came for Ferdinand Marcos, ousted by the Philippines’ People Power movement five years after Vice President George H. W. Bush told him at a luncheon: “We love your adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic process.”
The list could be extended. Since World War II, the White House, under the management of both parties, has smiled on at least a couple of dozen despots. (“Friendly Dictators Trading Cards,” marketed by a California publisher in the 1990s, featured “36 of America’s most embarrassing allies.”)
“It used to be anti-Communism,” said David F. Schmitz, a historian at Whitman College and author of two books on the American attachment to dictators. “Now it’s most often moderates who stand against radicalism in the world of Islam.”
Mr. Schmitz deplores the phenomenon, which he believes has too often bought an ersatz stability at a very high price. By backing an autocrat, he said, America often ensures that “the political center gets destroyed, giving credence to extremists’ arguments and discrediting the U.S.”
After all, the man who felled Batista, the virulently anti-American Mr. Castro, is still in power more than 50 years later. Cuban-American relations produced a brush with thermonuclear war in 1962, a permanently crippled Cuban economy and — well, generations of successful anti-Castro politicians in Miami and beyond.
Iran, too, got mired in a new brand of undemocratic rule after the shah. The United States still faces a hostile regime ruled by ayatollahs and protected by a brutal, profiteering Revolutionary Guard — tough enough to have weathered its own Egyptian-style uprising in 2009.
But Mr. Schmitz watches diplomacy from the tranquil distance of the academy. Ask a onetime practitioner, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser at the time of the shah’s fall, and you get a very different view. No administration, he noted, starts with an ideal set of international partners.
“To conduct foreign policy,” he said, “we have to deal with the governments that exist. And some of those are dictatorships.”
When Mr. Brzezinski and his boss encountered the shah’s dictatorship, the only other power centers in Iran were the Communists of the Tudeh Party and the mullahs of the mosques, he said. As the popular revolt against the shah grew, he said, the Carter administration was divided. Some officials thought Ayatollah Khomeini, returning from exile, might provide a reasonable alternative. Mr. Brzezinski disagreed.
“My view was that the shah should crack down and then begin aggressive reforms,” he recalled. He lost the argument. Three decades later, the United States is trying to prevent the theocracy that followed from getting nuclear weapons. It is at least an arguable position that Mr. Brzezinski’s formula of crackdown and reform, if it had worked, would have produced better long-term results for the rights of Iranians, as well as for international security.
Mr. Brzezinski says Egypt’s prospects if Mr. Mubarak is toppled are brighter than Iran’s in 1979: “The army is respected and has a lot of support across the country. There is a middle class of sorts. And the Muslim Brotherhood is still under control,” reducing the risk that a theocratic regime would emerge.
Mr. Brzezinski was Mr. Carter’s adviser when Mr. Sadat signed the historic peace treaty with Israel’s Menachem Begin, and while he now says Mr. Mubarak’s time has passed, he by no means considers American support for him to have been a tragic mistake. “I would say it was a good deal for the U.S. and for Egypt,” he said. Mr. Mubarak consolidated peace in the region and was a “modernizer” at home, he said. “Historic change outpaced the modernizer, as often occurs.”
Rashid Khalidi, professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia and a former adviser to Palestinian peace negotiators, rejects this brand of realpolitik. The ostensible benefits the United States has derived from its backing of Mr. Mubarak are illusory, he said: the peace between Egypt and Israel has not yet brought a peace between Israel and the Palestinians; oppression in Egypt has actually fueled terrorism, even if some of its Egyptian practitioners, like Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy leader of Al Qaeda, have fled Egypt proper; and as is self-evident today, stability did not last.
Other cooperation has left a stain on America’s reputation. The Bush administration sent some terrorist suspects to Egypt, where they later said they were tortured. Today, protesters in Cairo hold up spent tear gas canisters with American labels. Such policies were “bankrupt morally and stupid politically,” Mr. Khalidi said.
“I know it’s easy to talk about American being true to its values,” he said. “But you know, sometimes it makes sense.”