Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why I Can't Support the Egypt Letter

Academics are circulating an open letter to President Obama which calls for undertaking "comprehensive review of US foreign policy on the major grievances voiced by the democratic opposition in Egypt and all other societies of the region." It calls on the President to "publicly acknowledge those reforms [you seek] will not be advanced by Mubarak of any of his adjutants."

The letters' signatories are some of the most intelligent and insightful Middle East scholars in the United States. They produce first class scholarship and make great advances in better understanding the complexities of the Middle East. My concerns have nothing to do with the signatories on this letter, and I greatly respect their opinions.

But I have three hesitations about the text of the letter.

First, the letter calls upon the US government to "approach Egypt through a framework of shared values and hopes, not the prism of geostrategy." Asking a government not to consider geostrategy would be like asking a doctor not to consider the risk of infection while operating. Governments deal in terms of geostrategy, and they should. It matters what Jordan and Syria think when the US speaks to Egypt. Policy recommendations must be put in policy terms. The letter would be better if it explained how promoting shared hopes and values advanced US geostrategic interests.

Second, many of the recommendations in the letter not related to geostrategy are steps the government has already taken. The letter calls for a "comprehensive review of US foreign policy on the major grievances voiced by the democratic opposition in Egypt."

This is already occurring, and it's evident from the shift in US rhetoric on Egypt in the past six days. On Tuesday Secretary Clinton stated, "Our assessment is that the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interest of the Egyptian people." Today, she stated, "What we are focused on now is a transition that will meet the needs of the Egyptian people and that will truly establish democracy, not just for one election." This is a dramatic shift from a full vote of confidence in President Mubarak to rhetoric calling for a transition. It indicates that a review of US foreign policy is already very much under way at Foggy Bottom and at the White House.

Third, the letter does little to inform the policy discussion on Egypt. Nothing in the letter is particularly new or cutting-edge. Most of it has very little to do with the academy. A letter urging Egypt to restore freedom of speech in Egypt would be much more topical to the academy, where the free exchange of ideas underlies innovative ideas and new ways of thinking. It gives me immense confidence that Middle East academics realize that they are not isolated, impartial observers of violence and suffering, and consider their responsibilities as people with the potential to ameliorate the human condition in the Arab world. But I am concerned that the letter was not written in terms of pragmatic policy prescriptions, but rather vaguely asks the President to "embark on a new course towards peace, democracy, and prosperity for the people of the Middle East."

That Middle East scholars wish to communicate with policymakers is a positive step which bodes well for creating pragmatic, informed, wise policies for the United States. But each of the above hesitations gives me pause about the extent to which the letter accomplishes this goal. I urge revision of the letter to communicate specific pragmatic policy positions. Effectively communicating these positions is not only an imperative for those who study the Middle East, but also key to advancing the interests of our country and the rights of the people of the Middle East whose passion, dedication, and perseverance inspire our work.

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