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The Unraveling of U.S. Mideast Policy

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The blow to U.S. foreign policy by the popular uprising in Egypt cannot be overstated. The Egyptians’ demand that Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt with an iron hand and billions of American taxpayer dollars, step down is unquestionably a major setback to the U.S. governing class and its plans for the Middle East. Since the end of World War II, critics of U.S. policy have warned that defying the people of the region in favor of authoritarian ruling elites was doomed to failure. As things now begin to unravel, we see that those critics were right.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton say they support the aspirations of the Egyptian people. Previous officials have said that too. But let’s be clear. American officials support those aspirations only so long as they do not impede U.S. policy. Those officials are smart enough to know that if the Egyptian people have no way to let off steam, the lid will blow. So when the president says he supports reform, he means reform no deeper than necessary to take pressure off whatever the U.S. government regards as important.

The problem for the ruling elite is that there’s little it can do to steer events. Its vaunted firepower and intelligence apparatus are useless against the masses in the street. Still, Obama and Clinton persist in the fantasy that they can determine such things as the timing of the transition to a new government. Their admonitions and condescension are pathetic. The empire is revealed to be a pitiful giant.

The American policy elite is clearly in a bind. It is helpless, yet it needs Egypt to be controlled by Mubarak or someone like him. The main reason can be stated in one word: Israel. As the New York Times wrote, “For 30 years, [Mubarak’s] government has been a pillar of American foreign policy in a volatile region, not least because of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. American officials fear that a new government — particularly one dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist groups — may not honor the treaty signed in 1979 by Mr. Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar el-Sadat.”

That peace treaty was purchased by President Jimmy Carter with the U.S. taxpayers’ money. (See my article “More Mideast Bills,”: http://www.fff.org/comment/ed0700f.asp.) As a result, the Egyptian government has gotten more than a billion dollars a year since 1979; Israel has gotten about $2 billion. With a client state in the grip of a torturous dictator, it is easy for the U.S. ruling elite to ignore what the subject population wants. But now things have changed. The Egyptian people, like other Arabs, hate Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians and America’s support of it. Whatever government emerges from the current popular movement is unlikely to kowtow to U.S.-Israel policy. If the new president, seduced by American dollars, were to pick up where Mubarak left off, he would be inviting the people back into the streets. That does not mean a new government would seek war with Israel, but it would no longer be a “pillar of American foreign policy.” Official Egyptian solidarity with the long-suffering Palestinians would be a setback for the American and Israeli governments. It might leave Israel no choice but finally to attend to Palestinian grievances. That would be welcome.

While American officials are surely losing sleep over Egypt, the American people need to understand that Arab hostility toward the United States is not directed at their way of life but at a foreign policy that treats them like colonial subjects and Israel like a privileged child.

Even if the Muslim Brotherhood were to gain a dominant role in the next government — unlikely in secular Egypt — the only danger to Americans would stem from continued meddling. As former CIA analyst Bruce Reidel notes, the Muslim Brotherhood has given up violence. If the U.S. government stops intervening, the Muslim Brotherhood will attend to Egypt and ignore America.

The American governing class still thinks it can orchestrate events in the Middle East. It can’t. A new era has opened. Now is a good time for U.S. officials to stop thinking in terms of allies and adversaries. Military and economic aid should be terminated for all parties. In its place: nonintervention and free trade.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.