Lee Smith, the Weekly Standard writer and Hudson fellow, had some difficult truths to tell the hardline Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). In a phone briefing, he talked about the developing situation in Egypt and across the Arab world. He was not, as is his wont, totally wrong about everything.
During the phone call with JINSA, Smith discussed how support for Israel and its peace treaty with Egypt led to massive U.S. support for the military dictatorship of deposed President Hosni Mubarak. In the current situation, Smith said, the $1.3 billion of military aid to Egypt “gives (the U.S.) some leverage, but we also need to realize it’s going to boomerang on us as well. This is something that’s going to happen.”
What Smith describes as a hypothetical future cost is actually exactly what has already been happening in the Arab world for decades now. The boomerang has long since turned back in the U.S.’s direction. There’s even a term for it: linkage.
A concept that has long held sway among top military officers such as Gen. David Petreaus, linkage refers to the strategic price that the U.S. pays for its “special relationship” — a policy of unflinching support — with Israel, even as various Israeli-Arab conflicts fester.
It’s a bit surprising to hear Smith talk about linkage, since the notion is common neoconservative bête noire. (The usual neocon reading is “reverse-linkage” — that the road to peace in the Middle East runs through anywhere but Jerusalem.) Smith did, however, only express linkage from a strictly Egyptian perspective. After initially stammering in response to a question, Smith said:
We need to also look at the peace treaty as a liability, because this is how many Egyptians are going to look at it. Again, if I were an — I’m not Egyptian, but if I were an Egyptian, and I had no problems with Israel, I would again be compelled to look at the peace treaty and say, ‘This is a problem. This under-girds every bit of corruption we’ve seen in the last thirty years of Egypt. The peace treaty is killing us.’ So I would say that for American policymakers, we need to be extremely sensitive to this.
Earlier in the call, he said the same thing, emphasizing that this sentiment among Egyptians does not come from anti-Semitism or hatred of Israel:
The central plank of ‘Mubarakism’ was the peace treaty. It was not just the 1.3 billion in aid that goes to Egypt every year. … Everything that comes out of this created this military and political and business elite. … If I were an Egyptian patriot and I didn’t want war with Israel, even if I’d gone to Israel and loved Israel, I would have to say that this peace treaty is a real problem because this peace treaty, for the past thirty years, has been the glue that has empowered the elite.
Mubarak’s repressive regime was “underwritten” by the treaty, Smith said, acknowledging the U.S. role in it: “I’m not saying that the U.S. wanted to make the ruling elite corrupt, but the U.S. empowered (them).”
Though unconvinced that a good solution exists at the moment, Smith did seem to endorse “a more liberal (Egyptian) government that is responsive to the needs of its people.” While Smith said he’d “like to see elections as soon as possible,” he also sees a lack of viable candidates who could press the ruling military circle into these reforms.
That said, Smith conceded that waiting too long for elections — i.e., continued support for the military regime — could backfire (as if it hasn’t already after three decades). He said that bringing elections either “too quickly or too slowly” could create problems, proposing in the latter scenario a potential coup by young officers that could entrench a new cadre atop a military dictatorship.
But even while acknowledging that support for dictatorships causes “Arabs (to) hate the U.S.“, for Smith, it was only a potential delay in elections that could “boomerang.” Also, he attributed anti-Americanism to Washington’s support for dictators “as well as” support for Israel — as if in the case of Egypt these are wholly separate.
Recognizing linkage is an important advancement. As Smith said, regular Egyptians, motivated by nothing more than national and individual interests (who might even have visited and “love” Israel), may want to re-evaluate the terms of the Egyptian-Israeli treaty. Indeed, U.S. policy makers would be wise to be “extremely sensitive” to the implications.