Belmont Club

Gambler's Ruin

It had been a busy week for a journalist friend of mine. He’s a specialist in Egypt and has been much in demand analyzing the situation there.  When we met for coffee this afternoon the story he told was substantially the same as Walter Russell Mead’s lugubrious analysis. Egypt is broke, Morsi has failed, and there are no easy fixes to its problems in sight.  Egypt is in a deep hole and digging itself deeper by the minute.

What my friend emphasized that Mead’s article did not  was the sheer visceral dislike for Ambassador Anne  Patterson’s support of the faltering Egyptian strongman. Not that it’s her fault. Patterson is no doubt loyally following President Obama’s line in backing Morsi. But that’s about as popular as backing the Plague in Prince Prospero’s castle. Neither Morsi nor Obama are very popular among the throngs of protesters right now, whose crowds far exceed the heights of the Arab Spring.

The man in the street is miserable and he needs someone to blame.  Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood ran on a program of Hope and Change and delivered exactly nothing — and that would be putting it kindly. “Morsi is so incompetent he seems almost malevolent,” my friend said.

Walter Russell Mead adds that Morsi is so bad he might make even more radical Islamists look good.  “Salafis, the ultra-Islamists who think Morsi’s problems stem from his failure to roll out the full glory of Islamist governance, hope that as the Muslim Brotherhood loses its appeal, their harder and purer faith will carry the day.”

A Muslim cleric with whom my friend shared a stage said “the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] are finished”. Them and a lot else.

That would be bad news for President Obama, who some think backed the Ikhwan in the hopes he could play it against the hardline Salafis. In this taxonomy the Brotherhood were the moderates. They were our friends. Well now Obama’s friends are going down for the count and now having lost the one, he may get the other. If the administration’s game was to pit one set of Islamists against the other, both in Egypt and perhaps in Syria, the President may discover that in the strange calculus of the region they can both win by losing.

And as if to make things worse the Ethiopians are building a dam upstream in the Nile (with Chinese money) that may throttle Egyptian irrigation water, already rationed and in short supply. Egypt already imports most of its food and is now about to run out whatever funds it has left to feed itself. Misery is when even the Ethiopians have you behind the 8-ball.

Egypt fears that the Nile dams will reduce the flow of the river’s waters further downstream and Addis Ababa has long complained that Cairo was pressuring donor countries and international lenders to withhold funding.

An international panel of experts is set to announce its findings on the impact of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile’s flow in May 2013.

Analysts suspect that any shortfall in funding of such projects could draw further Chinese capital to Africa, where Beijing has begun to accumulate natural resources and volumes of trade.

Critics have already slammed China’s willingness to lend money for Gilgel Gibe III’s turbines over concerns the dam would create serious environmental damage.

The Chinese may have a new motto in Afrrica. “Call Me Bwana”. China seems to have a knack for benefiting from American policy in the Middle East. Recently the New York Times reported that “China Is Reaping Biggest Benefits of Iraq Oil Boom”, something America can’t do because it’s immoral to trade American blood for oil. But there is no objection as long as it benefits China. This fact is one of life’s mysteries though somewhere in the Encyclopedia of Political Correctness an explanation must exist.

Or maybe the moral self-congratulation is  just a chump’s consolation for being had or feeling good about longest losing streak in American foreign policy since the days when the Soviet Union took over Eastern Europe, Mao booted out Chiang Kai Shek and North Korea reached the Pusan perimeter. Egypt is in ruins. Syria is in ruins. Libya alive with Islamists. Lebanon is on the verge of civil war. Russia and Iran are actually on the come back trail in the region. And nobody mentions stopping Teheran’s bomb any more. That was in the speech before the one about Red Lines. What happened to the days when President Obama was promising new beginnings in the Middle East?

Well he’s still promising them. Yesterday “President Barack Obama called on Egypt’s government and opposition on Saturday to engage each other in constructive dialogue and prevent violence spilling out across the region.” And as if to emphasize the irony Washington Post added the same day “US eyes security at embassy, consulates in Egypt as Cairo braces for weekend protests”.

Watch out for them videos.

President Obama may accomplish the almost unbelievable feat of being resented by both enemy and ally — or former ally — alike. But he’s still popular with the Washington Press, which is still either afraid or in deference to him, hoping perhaps that he can turn things around in the next three and half years of his term. But the odds are that we ain’t seen nothing yet.

The big mistake of the press was to let the huge errors of the President’s first term slide past without criticism. For that’s what the public is looking at now. The foreign policy catastrophes, the IRS scandals, Benghazi and even the NSA are all first term blunders that are coming to light just now. The second term errors are still in the mail. By giving the President a pass in his first term the press just guaranteed such a backlog of catastrophes that they amount almost to an avalanche.

To some extent America is in the same boat as the Egyptians. There’s an awareness of deep trouble which nobody has figured a way to get out of.

The administration hoped to rely on the President’s genius. Somehow the belief was that the new administration would be “smart”. Things didn’t need to be explained to the public because the smart guys now in power would have things in hand. And now it is becoming evident there was at no time either plan or genius at work. Or if there was it was not in evidence.

But it’s too late now for anything except the forlorn hope that this is all a bad dream and that American foreign policy like Egypt, will get over it and somehow survive. God takes care of children and the United States of America. Egypt has seen more than 30 centuries. It will see a few more. We’ll survive, but more in spite of ourselves than because of our cleverness.


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