Smart v. Stupid
What Egyptian democracy means for the U.S.
Fruit of the poisonous olive tree
The emerging democracy in Egypt is yet another blow to U.S. influence and yet another boost to the region’s local superpower, Iran.
Perhaps fifty years from now, the disadvantages of democratization will be erased by its benefits. In the meantime, a democratic Egypt virtually assures the end of secular government in the Middle East. As Egypt reorganizes under some form of religion-dominated democracy, it is also inevitable that they will turn away from the United States.
Not that we didn’t ask for it, mind you. We’re getting ready to eat the fruit of the poisonous tree we nurtured.
For most of the last century, the United States has aligned itself with Middle-East dictators and thugs. The net effect of our blood and treasure has been to over-weaponize dictatorships while simultaneously giving their people reasons to hate us.
In all fairness, back when we started meddling in the Middle East (meddling became really popular after World War II) there were only tribal leaders to choose from. But our foreign policy never attempted to nudge these monarchs toward a better form of government. We didn’t even want to. The truth is that democracies are harder to deal with and, well, we chose selfishly.
Arguably, the worst of our dictator buddies was the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, who was fond of making dissidents wear metal boxes padlocked over their heads while he tortured them for months or years. But he was 100 percent our guy. He did whatever we asked, and when we gave him tons of cash, he spent it at our arms bazaar. The Shah was a willing middleman in the scam to launder billions of US taxpayer dollars into corporate profits. He was also Israel’s biggest arms customer. He was our kind of guy.
Today, Iran is a regional powerhouse, ruled by a group of evangelical mullahs who have veto power over every rule or law that is passed. Though not good for us or the Iranian people, the mullahs are still a big improvement over the Shah.
When our interests aligned with Saddam Hussein's, we backed his war. We wanted a weaker Iran, so did Iraq. So we gave Saddam billions which he dutifully spent on arms (some foreign) sourced from American companies. Congress’ Riegle Report also found that we sent him biological weapons (including anthrax and botulism) seventy-three times. Most Iranians believe the chemical weapons he used on the battlefield came from us.
When the war ended in a stalemate, we (of course) congratulated Saddam for winning. He thought we were being sincere and that we liked him well enough to let him annex Kuwait. Old George Bush bolloxed that one – it could have been prevented before it started. Next, Young George Bush decided to depose our former ally using phony weapons charges. Long story short, we destroyed a country and killed enough innocents that everyone who survived knew a few or more.
In the end, we settled for a government made up of two religious factions and a few crazy Kurds. Iraq is both democratic and a staunch ally of Iran. Expect the two countries to form a military alliance just as soon as we’re out the door. They’re already talking.
And now it’s Egypt. Our deal with the dictator Hosni Mubarak was largely written on two things, his willingness to declare peace with Israel and his willingness to launder your tax dollars by spending them on U.S.-made weapons. Egypt is currently the largest Middle East purchaser of U.S. arms. Between 2002 and 2009, they spent over $15 billion at our weapons companies. We armed his repressive government so completely that the tear gas now being shot at protesters says “Made in Johnstown, PA.”
One can expect that Egypt will closely follow the pattern of Iraq—a democratically elected government consisting of evangelical Muslim factions led (in this case) by the Muslim Brotherhood. They will rule—with the approval of the people—according to religious law. Egypt may even turn out to be a friendly ally to Iran. If so, Iran’s military will find all of our weapons technology to be very useful.
So what’s the lesson? Be careful what you wish for? Maybe. But the real lesson of the Middle East is to be careful of what you will tolerate, endorse, allow, or overlook—simply to sell a machine gun.
Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”