Cancer, Carter and Obama
There are some eery similarities between Egypt 2011 and Iran 1979, and some of them are unfortunately about American leadership. There are some big differences, too, but for the moment let's just look at some parallels and try to draw some necessarily tentative conclusions. After all, everything is up for grabs right now and things will probably change a lot in the next few hours and days.
First of all is prostate cancer. The shah was dying of it and Mubarak is afflicted with it. We know Mubarak's got it. We didn't know the shah had it. One of the effects of the disease and its treatment seems to be that the person has difficulty making tough decisions, and it inevitably forces him to think about his legacy. The shah didn't want to go down as a bloody dictator, and he rejected all appeals from his generals to open fire on the demonstrators. This encouraged the opposition and discouraged the military commanders.
Second is the role of Washington. Carter did not know what to do, and he was operating on the basis of very bad intelligence. Above all, he (thanks to his CIA) had very little good information about Khomeini. He and advisers like Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Iran desk officer Henry Precht and NSC staffer Gary Sick all permitted themselves to believe that we could continue to have very good relations with Iran even if the shah were overthrown. They failed to see the nature and extent of the Khomeini movement, saw it as a "progressive revolution," and UN Ambassador Andrew Young famously called the ayatollah a holy man, and even "some kind of saint."
I don't know the quality of our intelligence on the Egyptian opposition, but if former Ambassador Martin Indyk is correct (and all I've got to go on is a Tweet saying he said it on BBC Arabic), the White House and State Department may be signaling approval of Mohammed al-Baradei. According to Al Jazeera -- a very unreliable source to put it mildly -- Obama has told leaders in the Gulf that the United States favors a "peaceful transition" to greater democracy.
Well, so do I. But Baradei is one of the last men I would choose for that role. He doesn't like America and he's in cahoots with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. He would be likely to try to replay the ghastly catastrophe of 1979. Bad for freedom, bad for the Egyptian people, bad for America. Does our intelligence community not know this? And if they do, why is Obama tilting towards this outcome? If he is, that is...
In 1979 we came down hard on the shah to show restraint towards the demonstrators, just as we are today with Mubarak. I understand that no American government, let alone an Obama government, can openly say to Mubarak: "What are you waiting for? Put it down!" I don't know what we're saying privately. Gates has apparently spoken to his counterparts in Cairo and Jerusalem. What did they say? I don't know, obviously, but that conversation would go a long way to clarify the real facts. I'll bet you that there was some sort of deadline to Mubarak: if you can't establish control within x days, we will have to work with the opposition. That would be normal and sensible.
The greatest American sin in 1979 was to confuse the shah. He didn't know what we wanted. From the State Department he heard calls for sweet reasonableness, entreaties not to use live ammunition against the mobs, and so forth. From Brzezinski he heard pleas to be strong. Maybe even to crack down violently. The shah didn't know who to believe. Then it got worse. We sent a General Huyser to Tehran with two sets of instructions: a) to support a military coup and b) to prevent a military coup. So the shah and the generals stood by and watched, and Khomeini's multitudes, who knew exactly what they wanted, fought all-out and won.
It follows that Mubarak has to know exactly what we want. Do we know what we want? My impression is that we are confused, just as in 1979. Obama's statement the other day (yesterday if I remember rightly) was not encouraging. "The future of Egypt will be determined by the Egyptian people" and we will support them. What does that mean? There's a fight going on, and we have to take sides. I think Mubarak is entitled to wonder just what we want, and that's dangerous, because it means that his decisions will be driven at least in part by guesswork and suspicion.
As I've said, that we have come to this impasse shows a long-standing policy failure, just as it did in Iran in 1979. We should have supported democratic opposition forces all along (footnote: it's quite amusing to hear former officials proclaiming "we can't support dictatorship" when they did precisely that when they were in office. Including some, like C. Rice, who promised to support democrats and then didn't.). But we didn't, the London Telegraph's misleading headline writers notwithstanding. Now we have no attractive options. Too bad.
So even if our intelligence is weak, we still have to make decisions, and the basic rule has to be the same as Hippocrates' injunction to doctors: don't make things worse. Don't inflict an even worse tyranny on the Egyptian people, one that is likely to plunge the region into a big war. If that means working with the generals to create a transition government that promises to shape a more attractive polity, so be it. The lesser of two evils is a legitimate policy decision.
In fact, it's the most common one. I'm sure Obama hates being in this position, as any of us would. But he's got to make decisions. Clearly and emphatically. And stay on top of it, which is not at all his style or inclination.
And that's the final similarity with 1979: the wrong American in the wrong job at a crucial time. Let's hope that the Almighty truly does protect the blind, the drunk, and the United States of America.
It's even better to be lucky than to be smart.