Leslie H. Gelb seems worried. In a new op-ed in The Daily Beast, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations warns that the Obama administration is wandering into unknown, perhaps dangerous, territory by showing an inkling of support to the protesters in Egypt.
Gelb warns that when the U.S. has previously pushed for democracy in the region, it has resulted in Hamas taking over Gaza and paved the way for Hezbollah to grab power in Lebanon. He is perhaps right on this, but it seems to me Gelb is overstating U.S. influence in the region. He ignores any other factors that contributed to these militant groups gaining power, such as internal strife, third-party influence (such as Syria), and the perception of a U.S.-Israeli alliance standing against the Arab world.
Further more, Gelb is worried that the loss of friendly Egyptian government might be detrimental to the state of Israel:
“The stakes are sky high. Egypt is the linchpin to peace in the Middle East. So long as Egypt refrains from warring against Israel, other Arab states cannot take military action by themselves. So long as Cairo remains pro-Western, it serves as an anchor for other such friendly governments.”
Egypt is no doubt a very important player in the region, but to assume that the country is the failsafe against all-out war between Arab states and Israel is a bit simplistic. The lack of a belligerent Egypt is doubtfully the only thing keeping other Arab states from going to war (Gelb fails to mention who he means by “other Arab states”). Israel has multiple convincing deterrents against direct war, such as U.S. security guarantees, the most advanced armed forces in the region, and perhaps most significantly, a nuclear arsenal. That is not even considering domestic factors in the Arab countries that might constrain governments from taking aggressive action.
Gelb’s peculiar analysis continues:
“Most certainly, most Arab governments friendly to Washington need to make reforms. But to do so at a moment of weakness, to be seen as bending to mobs, however peaceful and moderate they look now, could open up the floodgates—in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere.”
The first line seems like nothing more than throw-away language. It is the second line, however, that is hard to comprehend. Does Gelb seriously believe that these autocratic governments would enact democratic reform without public anger? Though he doesn’t say as much, it is not difficult to imagine Gelb somehow picturing in his head U.S. diplomats working hard behind the scenes encouraging or coercing these regimes into destroying their own power base through democratic reform. Setting aside the questionable moral undertone of Gelb’s statement, the assumption that such change would happen without internal pressure has seemingly no root in reality.