Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens On Our Maddening Egypt Policy
HH: That is Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi. I’m joined now by Bret Stephens, deputy editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, who has a wonderful piece in today’s paper, “A Policy On Egpyt: Support Al Sisi, in which he points out there are two parties. You can either be with the military or the Muslim Brotherhood, and three outcomes – a prolonged civil war, a win by the military, or a return to power by a vengeful Muslim Brotherhood. What is it that the President and Republican Senators don’t get, Bret Stephens?
BS: Well, I think they don’t get the distinction between an attitude and a policy. It’s one thing to have an attitude that the killing that took place in Egypt last week, or the imprisonment of Brotherhood leaders is in some ways tragic, regrettable. But condemning violence, or calling for restraint isn’t the same thing as setting a goal that is realistic, and that chooses between the available options. And that’s what I was trying to call for in my column. We don’t have an option in Egypt that says let’s have a liberal democracy and we can just check that and make that happen. What we can do is prevent the worst potential outcomes from being realized. And a civil war, the return of the Brotherhood, strike me as terrible and tragic outcomes compared to the military gaining control of the situation, and in time, creating a government that is reformist and more progressive-minded in the real sense of that term, than anything that Egypt has seen before.
HH: Now Bret Stephens, here is the most astonishing thing. I do not know of a single Republican who has stood up and called for the policy that you articulated, and that I have been articulating. Are you? Has anyone stood up for what I would have called Ronald Reagan realism?
BS: Well, that’s the astonishing thing, and I was really very disappointed in Senators Graham and McCain, who were over in Egypt not long ago, for denouncing what the military has been doing. That pair is usually fairly realistic on foreign policy. And my expectations for someone like Rand Paul aren’t necessarily as high. But it’s kind of strange that we have a Republican Party that can’t see that we have a clear interest in preventing Egypt, the most populous Arab state, and still a keystone for a relatively stable Middle East, from falling into the hands of an Islamist party like the Brotherhood, that will be explicitly anti-American, that will in time disavow its treaty obligations toward Israel, that is a threat to all of its neighbors, not just Israel, but to a country like Saudi Arabia, which is, by the way, supporting the Egyptian military to the hilt, and which finally, could very easily go back to becoming a client of Russia, just as it was during the period of Nasser.
HH: Or the PRC. Here is Lindsey Graham on my colleague, Michael Medved’s show yesterday, Bret Stephens.
LG: They’re going to force us, through their actions, to cut off aid. And the aid is just a symbol. What follows after we cut aid off aid is Western investment is going to dry up in Egypt. They’re going to be more dependent on Saudi Arabia and the other countries. And eventually, Saudi Arabia can’t run, pay the bills of Egypt. The economy becomes stagnant, the place devolves into a civil war. And that is a nightmare for Egypt.
MM: It is, and who wins the civil war? In other words, if the United States reduces our involvement with, and our influence on the current Egyptian regime, doesn’t that just hand more power to the Muslim Brotherhood?
LG: Not really. The Muslim Brotherhood, in my view, will be best marginalized through the democratic process.
HH: All right, now Bret Stephens, everything Lindsey Graham said is wrong. Everything.
BS: Right. I agree, and it’s fairly astonishing hearing it from him, because of course, it was the democratic process that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power just a year ago in the first place. And so you know, maybe, but it’s a heck of a gamble. The important point is that the Muslim Brotherhood, when it was in power, was in the process of establishing a dictatorship, very willfully and very openly. And people like Senator Graham knew it just as well as you or I do. So people revolted against that. To let the Muslim Brotherhood back into power is like letting the mongoose come back into the room with the cobra.
BS: It’s a crazy strategy.
HH: And they are not forcing us to do anything. Western aid will not dry up. It’s already dried up because of violence that can only be restored with the rule of some stability. Saudi Arabia is not going to walk away, because that’s their kingdom. And the economy is a shambles before this thing began. That’s why it actually began the rioting against Mubarak. So I’m just amazed. Do you think that Lindsey Graham actually has ever read The Looming Tower? Do you think he knows anything about the Brotherhood?
BS: Look, I think Graham is actually a knowledgeable and peripatetic, if that’s the word, or a hard-traveling senator who has had an inexplicable mental lapse in this situation. And I’m going to endeavor, hopefully through my column, to persuade him of the error of his ways.
HH: Okay, now I also believe that this issue is going to split the Republican Party. I did not really think Lindsey Graham had trouble in South Carolina, but I believe on this issue that deep Reagan coalition is going to rise up, Bret Stephens. I haven’t seen it, yet. I haven’t seen Rubio step out or any of the foreign policy conservatives step forward. But I expect them to, because I think they’re going to hear from people.
BS: Look, I have been overwhelmed by the amount of support that I’ve had in letters about my column. I think a lot of people were waiting for someone to say what I said today, and a handful of other people have been saying. Look, in a perfect world, we would always be able to say let’s choose the democratic, the liberal option. Egypt is not the perfect world. And foreign policy has to be conducted in the world as we know it. We have a choice between a not particularly attractive option, which is the military, and a disastrous option, which is the Brotherhood. We had that option in Iran in 1979.
BS: A not particularly attractive shah, and a disastrous Islamist uprising, and Jimmy Carter didn’t support the not particularly attractive shah, and we’ve been paying for it for 33, 34 years since. Let’s not repeat that mistake in Egypt.
HH: Last question, Bret Stephens. It’s really a failure of imagination, because while it is awful to see a thousand people murdered, you see it. What you don’t see is what happened in the Khomeinist brutality that followed, and the executions and the repressions, and the Iraq-Iran civil war, with the young people marching through the minefields. It’s really a failure of the imagination of people who cannot see past the breakup of a confrontation the Brotherhood really provoked.
BS: No, that’s absolutely right, and people have also not seen, except for a few YouTube videos that have been circulating especially in the Coptic community in the United States, the Islamist assaults on churches all over Egypt. People didn’t see the 25 policemen who were killed by Islamists radicals in the Sinai in the last few days. So by all means, let’s condemn violence on general principle. But a wise American policy would say to General Sisi privately, we’re not only going to support you, we’re going to find ways to double our support. You need to find a path that creates stability and a way forward.
HH: Bret Stephens, well argued, and I hope you continue to do so from the Wall Street Journal.
End of interview.