Parts I through IV of this series show that the Egyptian crisis will have both regional and global consequences for the future of the Arab world and the global energy crisis. Given these stakes, what is America to do?
America’s Vital Interests
Before generating a list of actionable policy recommendations, it is useful to delineate what America’s vital interests are in the region. As callous as it sounds, the responsibility of the American President is to further America’s national interests above all else. It is the job for which the American people elected him.
The overriding vital American national interest in this crisis is regional stability, not democracy. In fact, as I have indicated in prior posts on this crisis, Arab democracy will likely work directly against American interests.
Another vital interest is ensuring that oil and natural gas continues to flow from the region without disruption and that prices remain stable during the crisis. Thus far, prices have increased for Brent crude oil as the chart from The Economist shows on the right.
Now that America’s vital interests are clear, it is important to frame how America can ensure regional stability and energy security.
1. Reduce Unrest
America’s immediate priority is to ensure that Egypt restores order. Given that the Egyptian military is the largest and most stable organization in the country, the United States must support and advise the Egyptian military on tactical methods to restore order that minimize loss of life.
At the strategic level, American diplomatic statements must acknowledge the legitimate concerns of the Egyptian people and encourage a smooth and orderly resolution of the crisis.
2. Reassure Allies
In responding to the crisis, America must balance two competing interests. On the one hand, it must encourage a peaceful transition from Mubarak’s government to one that satisfies the majority of the Egyptian population.
On the other hand, America must not act so unilaterally as to give its allies the impression that it will abandon them any time the political winds change. Management of this process is especially important for Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Therefore, reassuring staunch political allies in the region is critical to American interests in regional stability and energy security.
3. Reinforce Energy Security
About five percent of the seaborne oil trade passes through the Suez Canal. Ensuring stability in Egypt and making sure it does not impact the free flow of energy resources is paramount. Preventing unrest from spreading to Saudi Arabia is also a national security imperative.
Given what is at stake, what are America’s policy options?
Option 1: Do Nothing
Doing nothing is always an option. The United States could stand above the fray and let the Egyptian people determine their own fate.
One risk in this scenario is the United States appears powerless to key regional allies like Israel, Turkey, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Another risk is that if Egypt descends into chaos, the Arab world will blame the United States for failing to act. America’s failure to respond to the crisis could also embolden more radical elements of the Arab Street to start unrest elsewhere, particularly in Saudi Arabia.
Based on these potential repercussions, doing nothing is a bad option.
Option 2: Delay
President Obama could encourage all Egyptian parties to be patient, while these parties work out details for a transitional government. The Egyptian military could serve as “adult supervision” to ensure an orderly transfer of power from Mubarak to the yet-to-be selected leaders of a transitional government.
American diplomats could make it very clear that the Muslim Brotherhood would have no role in the future government. If the two precedent failures of Hamas and Hezbollah going “legitimate” in Gaza Strip and Lebanon do not convince the Egyptian people that giving the Muslim Brotherhood a role in Egyptian politics is a bad idea, the threat of cutting off the country’s foreign aid might.
This option is the most probable one as it ensures the smoothest transition and maximizes stability.
Option 3: Deny
President Obama could reaffirm and support President Mubarak’s government.
The advantage of this approach is that it maximizes reassurance to America’s regional allies, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia, that the United States is firmly committed to the current regional order.
The disadvantage of this approach is that America’s reputation as the arsenal of democracy will ring hollow and America’s standing in the Arab world will take yet another blow.
Even more worrisome is that if the crisis escalates, the increasing stakes may require an active United States military commitment.
Option 4: Democratize Now
President Obama could wholeheartedly embrace the freedom agenda, demand that President Mubarak step down immediately, and encourage all Egyptian parties to form a transitional government and begin immediate transition to a democracy.
Of the four options, this one is the worst because it throws a leader who has been a loyal and staunch American ally for over three decades under a bus and it provides no guarantees of future stability. It also sends a signal to other American allies that the United States will abandon them at the first hint of trouble.
This option will likely maximize the opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power.
What Must Be Done
Option 2, or delaying the transition to a democracy, is likely the best and most probable course of American governmental action because it ensures the smoothest transition, blunts the participation of a banned, terrorist organization from Egypt’s government, maximizes Egyptian stability, and minimizes the crisis’ negative impact on global energy security.