As the Obama foreign policy team assesses U.S. policy in the Middle East during the crisis in Egypt, four overriding, vital national interests guide its decisions.
The problem is that several of these vital interests are in conflict.
For example, protecting the flow of Persian Gulf oil depends on stability in the oil-producing countries, most of which do not have democratic regimes. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, two of the largest oil exporters, are authoritarian monarchies and deny human rights to their citizens. The Suez Canal, through which most Gulf oil to Europe passes, is owned by Egypt, which also has an authoritarian regime.
Another example is that U.S. support for Israel conflicts with its promotion of democracy in neighboring states. In Lebanon, Washington's push for free elections resulted in a large vote for Hezbollah, an anti-Israel Islamist party that gets support from Iran and Syria. Similarly, an election in the Palestinian territories in 2006 resulted in a victory for Hamas, which opposes Israel's existence as a state.
Preventing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, especially in Iran, is in conflict with U.S. acquiescence in Israel's possession of nuclear weapons. Critics of U.S. policy ask: Why should Israel have nuclear weapons, but not other Middle East countries?
Ensuring political stability in Egypt may be more important to U.S. interests, in the short term, than pressing it to adopt a fully democratic system. The White House leans to that view while also supporting the demonstrators' calls for free speech and free press.
President Mubarak's decision Friday to resign and turn over authority to the armed forces is both a remarkable and a disquieting development in the revolution taking place in Cairo.
On the positive side, it gives the huge throng of protesters hope that democracy will soon replace Mubarak's authoritarian rule. But it also inaugurates a period of uncertainty where the army may feel obliged to use force against radical elements which will try to highjack the peaceful path to democracy.
Also, we should be prepared for a gradual change in Egypt's foreign policy. Nationalist tendencies, including anti-Americanism, are present in Egyptian society, And Hosni Mubarak raised that specter last week when he stated that he would never permit foreign countries to tell Egypt how to run its affairs. That comment was directed at the United States.
If the army exercises the dominant role in Egypt's transition from Mubarak's repressive regime to a more democratic system, it will argue that Egypt lacks experience with democracy and should go slowly in holding elections and giving power to an elected government. This is a reason for Washington's caution about pressing for free elections in September.
A major threat to U.S. strategic interests will occur if Iran becomes a nuclear power and an emerging Egyptian government also decides to produce nuclear weapons in order to balance Iran's implicit threat to the Arab countries.
Regardless of the outcome of Egypt's unfolding political drama, three major conclusions may be drawn about the future.
In sum, the Middle East is about to change in significant ways. Americans need to accept the reality that former close relationships with Egypt and other countries in the region may be less amicable than during recent years. And this in turn may cause the Obama administration to reassess U.S. vital interests in the Middle East.
File last modified on Friday, 4-FEB-2010 10:05 AM EST