In 1949, the Communist takeover of China rattled the US foreign policy establishment to its core. China’s fall to Communism was correctly perceived as a massive strategic defeat for the US. The triumphant Mao Zedong placed China firmly in the Soviet camp and implemented foreign policies antithetical to US interests.
For the American foreign policy establishment, China’s fall forced a reconsideration of basic axioms of US foreign policy. Until China went Red, the view resonant among foreign policy specialists was that it was possible for the US to peacefully coexist and even be strategic allies with Communists.
With Mao’s embrace of Stalin this position was discredited. The US’s subsequent recognition that it was impossible for America to reach an accommodation with Communists served as the intellectual architecture of many of the strategies the US adopted for fighting the Cold War in the years that followed.
Today the main aspect of America’s response to China’s Communist revolution that is remembered is the vindictive political hunt for scapegoats. Foreign Service officers and journalists who had advised the US government to support Mao and the Communists against Chiang Kai Shek and the Nationalists were attacked as traitors.
But while the “Red Scare” is what is most remembered about that period, the most significant consequence of the rise of Communist China was the impact it had on the US’s understanding of the nature of Communist forces. Even Theodore White, perhaps the most prominent journalist who championed Mao and the Communists, later acknowledged that he had been duped by their propaganda machine into believing that Mao and his comrades were interested in an alliance with the US.
As Joyce Hoffmann exposed in her book Theodore White and Journalism as Illusion, White acknowledged that his wartime report from Mao’s headquarters in Yenan praising the Communists as willing allies of the US who sought friendship, “not as a beggar seeks charity, but seeks aid in furthering a joint cause,” was completely false.
As he wrote, the report was “winged with hope and passion that were entirely unreal.”
What he had been shown in Yenan, Hoffmann quotes White as having written, was “the showcase of democratic art pieces they (the Communists) staged for us American correspondents [and] was literally, only showcase stuff.”
Contrast the US’s acceptance of failure in China in 1949, and its willingness to learn the lessons of its loss of China, with the US’s denial of its failure and loss of Egypt today.
On Sunday, new President Mohamed Morsy completed Egypt’s transformation into an Islamist state. In the space of one week, Morsy sacked the commanders of the Egyptian military and replaced them with Muslim Brotherhood loyalists, and fired all the editors of the state-owned media and replaced them with Muslim Brotherhood loyalists.
He also implemented a policy of intimidation, censorship and closure of independently owned media organizations that dare to publish criticism of him.
Morsy revoked the military’s constitutional role in setting the foreign and military policies of Egypt. But he maintained the junta’s court-backed decision to disband the parliament. In so doing, Morsy gave himself full control over the writing of Egypt’s new constitution.
As former ambassador to Egypt Zvi Mazel wrote Tuesday in The Jerusalem Post, Morsy’s moves mean that he “now holds dictatorial powers surpassing by far those of erstwhile president Hosni Mubarak.”
In other words, Morsy’s actions have transformed Egypt from a military dictatorship into an Islamist dictatorship.
The impact on Egypt’s foreign policy of Morsy’s seizure of power is already becoming clear. On Monday, Al-Masri al-Youm quoted Mohamed Gadallah, Morsy’s legal adviser, saying that Morsy is considering revising the peace accord with Israel. Gadallah explained that Morsy intends to “ensure Egypt’s full sovereignty and control over every inch of Sinai.”
In other words, Morsy intends to remilitarize Sinai and so render the Egyptian military a clear and present threat to Israel’s security. Indeed, according to Haaretz, Egypt has already breached the peace accord and deployed forces and heavy weaponry to Sinai without Israeli permission.
The rapidity of Morsy’s moves has surprised most observers. But more surprising than his moves is the US response to his moves.
Obama administrations officials have behaved as though nothing has happened, or even as though Morsy’s moves are positive developments.
For instance, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, one administration official dismissed the significance of Morsy’s purge of the military brass, saying, “What I think this is, frankly, is Morsy looking for a generational change in military leadership.”
The Journal reported that Egypt’s new defense minister, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sissi, is known as a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer. But the Obama administration quickly dismissed the reports as mere rumors with no significance. Sissi, administration sources told the Journal, ate dinner with US President Barack Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan during Brennan’s visit to Cairo last October. Aside from that, they say, people are always claiming that Morsy’s appointments have ties to Morsy’s Muslim Brotherhood.
A slightly less rose-colored assessment came from Steven Cook in Foreign Affairs. According to Cook, at worst, Morsy’s move was probably nothing more than a present-day reenactment of Gamal Abel Nasser’s decision to move Egypt away from the West and into the Soviet camp in 1954.
Most likely, Cook argued, Morsy was simply doing what Sadat did when in 1971 he fired other generals with whom he had been forced to share power when he first succeeded Nasser in 1969.
Certainly the Nasser and Sadat analogies are pertinent. But while properly citing them, Cook failed to explain what those analogies tell us about the significance of Morsy’s actions. He drew the dots but failed to see the shape they make.
Morsy’s Islamism, like Mao’s Communism, is inherently hostile to the US and its allies and interests in the Middle East. Consequently, Morsy’s strategic repositioning of Egypt as an Islamist country means that Egypt – which has served as the anchor of the US alliance system in the Arab world for 30 years – is setting aside its alliance with the US and looking toward reassuming the role of regional bully.
Egypt is on the fast track to reinstating its war against Israel and threatening international shipping in the Suez Canal. And as an Islamist state, Egypt will certainly seek to export its Islamic revolution to other countries. No doubt fear of this prospect is what prompted Saudi Arabia to begin showering Egypt with billions of dollars in aid.
It should be recalled that the Saudis so feared the rise of a Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Egypt that in February 2011, when US President Barack Obama was publicly ordering then-president Hosni Mubarak to abdicate power immediately, Saudi leaders were beseeching him to defy Obama. They promised Mubarak unlimited financial support for Egypt if he agreed
to cling to power.
to cling to power.
The US’s astounding sanguinity in the face of Morsy’s completion of the Islamization of Egypt is an illustration of everything that is wrong and dangerous about US Middle East policy today.
Take US policy toward Syria.
Syria is in possession of one of the largest arsenals of chemical and biological weapons in the world. The barbarism with which the regime is murdering its opponents is a daily reminder – indeed a flashing neon warning sign – that Syria’s nonconventional arsenal constitutes a clear and present danger to international security. And yet, the Obama administration insists on viewing Syrian President Bashar Assad’s murderous behavior as if it were a garden variety human rights crisis.
During her visit with Turkey’s Islamist Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last Saturday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn’t even mention the issue of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons. Instead she continued to back Turkey’s sponsorship of the Islamist-dominated opposition and said that the US would be working with Turkey to put together new ways to help the Islamist opposition overthrow Assad’s regime.
Among other things, she did not rule out the imposition of a no-fly zone over Syria.
The party most likely to be harmed from such a move would be Israel, which would lose its ability to bomb Syrian weapons of mass destruction sites from the air.
Then of course, there is Iran and its openly genocidal nuclear weapons program. This week The New York Times reported a new twist in the Obama administration’s strategy for managing this threat. It is trying to convince the Persian Gulf states to accept advanced missile defense systems from the US.
This new policy makes clear that the Obama administration has no intention of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Its actions on the ground are aimed instead at accomplishing two goals: convincing Iran’s Arab neighbors to accept Iran as a nuclear power and preventing Israel from acting militarily to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. The missile shields are aspects of a policy of containment, not prevention. And the US’s attempts to sabotage Israel’s ability to strike Iran’s nuclear sites through leaks, political pressure and efforts to weaken the Netanyahu government make clear that as far as the US is concerned, Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is not the problem.
The prospect of Israel preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is the problem.
Several American commentators argue that the Obama administration’s policies are the rational consequence of the divergence of US and Israeli assessments of the threats posed by regional developments. For instance, writing in the Tablet online magazine this week, Lee Smith argued that the US does not view the developments in Egypt, Iran and Syria as threatening US interests. From Washington’s perspective, the prospect of an Israeli strike on Iran is more threatening than a nuclear-armed Iran, because an Israeli strike would immediately destabilize the region.
The problem with this assessment is that it is nonsense. It is true that Israel is first on Iran’s target list, and that Egypt is placing Israel, not the US in its crosshairs. So, too, Syria and its rogue allies will use their chemical weapons against Israel first.
But that doesn’t mean the US will be safe. The likely beneficiaries of Syrian chemical weapons – Sunni and Shi’ite terrorist organizations – have attacked the US in the past. Iran has a history of attacking US shipping without a nuclear umbrella. Surely it would be more aggressive in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz after defying Washington in illegally developing a nuclear arsenal. The US is far more vulnerable to interruptions in the shipping lanes in the Suez Canal than Israel is.
The reason Israel and the US are allies is that Israel is the US’s first line of defense in the region.
If regional events weren’t moving so quickly, the question of who lost Egypt would probably have had its moment in the spotlight in Washington.
But as is clear from the US’s denial of the significance of Morsy’s rapid completion of Egypt’s Islamic transformation; its blindness to the dangers of Syrian chemical and biological weapons; and its complacency toward Iran’s nuclear weapons program, by the time the US foreign policy establishment realizes it lost Egypt, the question it will be asking is not who lost Egypt. It will be asking who lost the Middle East.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.