This responds to Naill Ferguson's misconceived diatribe against the Obama Administration's reaction to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Newsweek. In it, Ferguson presents three critiques of the Administration's actions: that it was misinformed and unprepared, that it acted in a contradictory manner, and -- most damming -- that it has no overall geo-strategic plan either for the Middle East or elsewhere.
Ferguson's overall critique concerning the Middle East is fundamentally misdirected and, to the extent that it has any validity, really relates to the effects of 40 years of dubious U.S. foreign policy decisions, for which Obama can hardly be held responsible. During this period (including during the entire Cold War), the U.S. actively supported a long line of Middle East autocrats, almost always to the detriment of the Arab populaces and societies over which they ruled. Many have said recently that in this approach the U.S. favored "stability" over other considerations. It, of course, did not. What it favored was the ability to make deals with existing governing elites in the Middle East region to promote U.S. interests including fighting our enemies, securing our principal energy supply, and protecting Israel.
In retrospect, the U.S. roughly achieved these aims -- but for what now appears to be only on a temporary basis. And it did so seemingly at the expense of both long-term stability and the protection of its interest in (so far) the two largest and geo-significant countries in the region: Iran and Egypt. Ferguson assumes the prospects of future cooperation with these countries will be bleak.
It should be left to historians to decide whether this was a reasonable trade-off. Suffice to say, at least for the Cold War period, the U.S. had a real geo-strategic adversary, the Soviet Union, whose existence could arguably justify our unconditional support of the various Middle East dictators on our payroll. Since the fall of communism, however, no comparable excuse has existed.
That the U.S., in retrospect, should at some point have pursued other policies rather than helping to entrench the Middle East governing status quo long before Obama appeared on the scene is, of course, not Obama's fault. Indeed, the U.S. had many years -- decades -- and many, many opportunities to solve the basic policy challenges in the region in the post-World War II era. The fact that it was able to accomplish lasting success in only one of its core missions represents a profound judgment against U.S. policy making and execution in this region -- particularly over the last 20 years.
Nor is the Obama Administration's decision to support democratization in Egypt and hope it will produce a regime that will cooperate with us indicative of faulty policy formation, indecision, or lack of planning. It is a necessity. Indeed, in light of the history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, what realistic alternative do we have? What grand design does Ferguson have in mind?
Furthermore, Ferguson's suggestion either that different rhetoric or more resolve from Obama could have saved Mubarak represents a fundamental misunderstanding -- bordering on delusion -- of the reality of power in Egypt and the Middle East. The issue is not about U.S. resolve, but rather about the lack of legitimacy of Mubarak and other corrupt, stagnant regimes in the region.
Instead of trying to shift responsibility from others with whom it really resides, we might want to reflect on policies that would enhance, rather than detract from, the possibilities for successful democratization -- and which should have been followed earlier. First and foremost is to reject Ferguson's conclusion that the principal danger now in Egypt is an Islamic fundamentalist takeover. This outcome would represent the end result of what is referred to as the "Iranian" model of Middle East political change and is the outcome forecast to occur by Ferguson's recent host, the Israeli government. To the contrary, the biggest danger both to and of democratization in the region and Egypt in particular is a continuation of economic conditions that consign 40% of Egypt's population to unemployment and permanent poverty. Without some meaningful improvement in economic conditions for the Arab masses, democratization is doomed and will lead to what Ferguson fears -- or worse.
So in addition to supporting a transition to democratic process in Egypt (and since when is an interim government to be followed by elections sound policy in Iraq but not in Egypt?), the U.S. needs to support policies that permit renewed rapid economic growth in Egypt and the region, improved work place conditions, and (God forbid) a fairer distribution of wealth. Supporting some type of social justice agenda like this would be the single most important step that the U.S. could take to ensure the successful emergence of secular, representative democracy in Egypt and in the region and to blunt religious autocracy and extremism. It goes without saying that strong secular democracies would also represent desirable geo-political counter-weights to Iran. (That, and finally presiding over a fair and just settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict by persuading Israel to trade land for peace, would be the most needed steps the U.S. could now take to achieve its objectives and protect its interests.) In his Cairo speech (indeed, in the very language cited by Ferguson), Obama explicitly recognized these social justice concerns as a bulwark against extremism. Thus, contrary to Ferguson's contention, Obama arguably has accurately analyzed a number of the fundamental dilemmas in the region.
Markets, the world economic system, shared economic growth: Duh, sounds like a no-brainer. It is mystifying why a commentator of Ferguson's stature and one of the most public proselytizers of globalization would not give Obama some credit -- instead of dismissing his remarks as hopelessly naive.
Finally, Ferguson completely omits another fundamental U.S. policy blunder in the Middle East and one which it also had decades to solve: energy dependence on an unstable area. Thirty-five years ago, Jimmy Carter (for whom Ferguson exhibits contempt) proposed and got enacted by the Congress a comprehensive energy policy, including the development of alternative fuels and increased energy efficiency and conservation. If we had followed through on even a portion of it, it would have made the U.S. completely independent of foreign oil production today. Leaving aside the economic benefits that would have accrued in terms of innovation and first-mover advantage in the energy industry (which would have positioned us to dominate long before the emergence of China as an economic competitor) and the advantages which we would have realized from energy independence in dealing with the problem of global climate change, ending Middle East oil dependency would have dramatically altered for the better the geo-political equation there. Now that would have been a real grand stratagem of the type Ferguson called for (and still could be). Again, Obama was not to blame for dismantling Carter's credible and sound plan to end dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Rather, Reagan and the Republican "revolution" of the last 30 years were responsible for that disaster. Nor is he standing in the way of alternative energy development, even if belated but still necessary, to end dependence on foreign oil.
Ferguson would have done a greater service to readers of Newsweek by discussing these and other fundamental flaws in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, rather than assailing Obama with the usual litany of neo-conservative fixations: radical Islam, Iran, revanchist Russia and the Chinese "threat." Only if we come to terms with the history of our Middle East policymaking and its effects can we understand Obama's reaction to Mubarak's fall, what needs to be done now, and the sufficiency of his response -- all matters on which Ferguson was silent.
Daniel Berger is an attorney in the field of complex litigation, including securities and anti-trust litigation, and has a broad-based knowledge concerning the structure and functioning of the US economy and US financial markets. He practices in Philadelphia.