Stalemate: How Tel Aviv and Washington Will Uphold the Status Quo in Egypt and Syria

Representative of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Representative of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.

Lee Smith (at Tablet) wants Obama to throw Assad out and “choose a horse” to back in Syria. Amir Oren (at Haaretz) is mulling over the possibility of another war in Gaza and suggests that Obama will not let the Egyptian military ride roughshod over Egypt’s forthcoming parliamentary elections, which begin November 28th.

Regime change in Syria? Doubt for Egypt’s future dealings with Israel. It’s a difficult new Middle East for Tel Aviv and Washington. What is to be done?

Encourage a stalemate, that’s what.

As usual, this is not a policy I advocate. It is simply by bad habit of trying to put myself in the shoes of those making the policies — in this case, Likud and the Democratic Party’s leadership. Tension and indecision that restrain Arab hands have served the Israeli and American governments well in the Middle East. In particular, they will serve Netanyahu and Obama well as 2012 approaches.

The U.S. does not wish to be seen as responsible for “losing” Egypt to Islamists in the coming elections. Netanyahu doesn’t have to worry about those charges because he has established that he wanted Mubarak to remain, but he’d still prefer it if the generals kept running the country. And neither government wants to risk enabling the rise of a more assertive Syrian regime that might continue Assad’s present foreign policy. Bibi’s priority is, and always has been, Israel’s “Manifest Destiny.” Further changes in Egypt and Syria will only endanger that project. The U.S. supports this project, but has ancillary concerns about Syria and Egypt (it is not always about Israel — well, except when it is).

There are significant differences in the two countries’ interests for Egypt and Syria. Netanyahu has already decided that the “Arab Spring” is going “backwards,” while Obama maintains rhetorical support for it (when convenient).

But that convenience is where the two governments have something in common. We have our global overreach to maintain (and unstinting support for Israel), and Israel has its settlements to grow (and unstinting support for whichever Americans work best to this end).

Obama does not stumble into policy decisions, nor is he the Machiavelli that his admirers make him out to be — he is an opportunist; fallible, but canny. The abrogation of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel would be a far greater disaster for him than any successes that Ramallah scores at the UN. He will have “lost” Egypt. And a regime change in Syria that emboldens pro-Iranian elements is also not in his interest (he will have “missed an opportunity,” rather than “lost” Syria).

Opportunism: to not press SCAF (Egypt’s governing Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) too hard over electoral transparency. The Muslim Brotherhood and other parties are nervous about how the first round of elections will go. Should the Egyptian generals prove to be less than committed to enforcing and recognizing their electoral commitments, the U.S. will likely not respond too forcefully.

Opportunism: to sanction, and perhaps even enforce a no-fly zone over part of Syria — but not take the steps we did in Libya and leave most of the talking (and not-doing) to the Arab League. There are clear precedents for this. Bill Clinton’s Iraq policy, for instance, and the more recent decision by Hilary Clinton to not tighten the Egyptian generals’ financial choke chain.

Unless Syria’s armed forces split apart, the aspirations of Syrian demonstrators will mean very little. 1989 in Europe was characterized by soldiers shirking away from the responsibility of firing on demonstrators (with the significant exception of Romania). Choices were made in Tunisia, Egypt and (to a degree) Libya by the military to stop firing on demonstrators. But choices were made in Bahrain and Yemen — and increasingly, once more in Egypt — to open fire, to the detriment of the opposition movements’ unity and momentum.

This skullduggery I’ve outlined is hardly a lasting solution. Or, again, one that I advocate. It is an approach that seeks to uphold as much of the old status quo — the one where military leaders (or monarchs) contained sentiments that threatened the post-1979 U.S.-Egyptian-Israel power triangle — as possible. It is what has worked in the past. What other options do Netanyahu and Obama really have, other than embracing an “Arab Spring” that neither really believes in?

No more rude surprises is the maxim. Smith, for instance, seems to be forgetting his own maxim that elected Islamists are far more dangerous than al Qaeda — and there is no guarantee he will get what he wants in Syria (a secular regime distanced from Iran and Hezbollah).

Why risk it? Let the Syrian Army replay Hama a dozen times over. That will chill the climate. Turning the heat up is really not what benefits the U.S. or Israel’s present goals. Unrest in the region never has, unless it can be turned into a wedge among the two powers’ rivals.

Any and all decisive actions — game changers like Assad’s removal or the Muslims Brotherhood’s Egyptian victory — carry too much risk. Risk aversion is “in,” as Smith (ruefully) suggests of Obama over Syria. Even Netanyahu is not that big a gambler — unless he decides that it is indeed time to “finish” business in Gaza.

Smoldering unrest in Syria (or perhaps a Syria resembling Iraq in the 1990s) makes for a weak(er) Syria, and an indefinite transitional military regime in Egypt — with a fractured, relatively powerless parliament — will demonstrate who its “allies” really are (hint: not Hamas or Hezbollah).

My analysis suggests that Netanyahu and Obama are incapable of implementing a new grand strategy together. I have no doubt that this is the case, as Netanyahu effectively holds Obama hostage because Likud — his Likud — has captured the U.S.’s Israel Lobby.

Lacking trust in each other and meaningful vision, both men would be advised to avoid making any sudden moves and simply try to order back the tide through our State and Defense Departments, lest they humiliate themselves again.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.