The Obama administration appears to have opened the door to a Muslim Brotherhood presence in a new Egyptian government. Assuming the administration carries through with this new stance, it represents a momentous shift in American foreign policy, in Obama’s domestic political profile, and, I fear, in the shape of the Middle East.
The optimistic take on the Muslim Brotherhood is that it has renounced violence and will slowly be transformed by democratic participation into a moderate and positive force. Some say the Brotherhood has benefitted from being one of the only organized opposition groups in Egypt. Take away the dictator, this thinking goes, and the Brotherhood will no longer be a safety valve for opposition to Mubarak.
I fear things are more likely to move in the opposite direction. Mubarak’s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood has hampered its ability to recruit. With the group legitimated, and with Egypt’s economic troubles unlikely to abate, the Brotherhood could easily turn into a refuge for the country’s legions of frustrated and unemployed young men. There was no good answer to the current crisis, but if it continues along the course suggested by Robert Gibbs late yesterday, the administration will have chosen the worst of all alternatives.
I’ve argued that Obama broadly follows the political strategy of his mentors from the Midwest Academy. Their idea was to build broad-based coalitions around issues of economic populism, downplaying the sorts of controversies over social issues or foreign policy likely to split the coalition. This, I think, is why Obama has stayed in Afghanistan, and has even increased our troop levels there. Obama would rather irritate the left, which will not desert him, than take actions that would alienate America’s center, or lead to a possible Islamist takeover of Afghanistan.
What Obama wants in foreign policy is enough stability to allow him to focus on transforming America economically by degrees. His dovish instincts remain, but have emerged up to now more in rhetoric than in concrete actions. The tension between Obama’s initial endorsement of the Ground Zero Mosque and his later backtracking on that issue symbolizes the war between his policy inclinations and his pragmatic willingness to rein those in.
Now Egypt, the keystone of American policy in the Middle East, has become unstable. Obama has no choice but to take controversial and high-risk action of some sort. Apparently, he has chosen to go with the “Don’t Fear the Brotherhood” crowd. In other words, when push comes to shove, Obama goes with the dovish multiculturalism that is his default political stance. If the administration sticks with this policy, it will mean the return of foreign policy as a major partisan dividing line in American politics. Had Obama kept the Muslim Brotherhood out, or had he at least visibly tried to do so, he might have avoided a campaign battle over “Who lost Egypt?” But having moved so visibly and so early to bring the Muslim Brotherhood in, Obama may soon be facing a return of the classic right/left battle lines over foreign policy.
I find it hard to believe that a legitimized and politically active Muslim Brotherhood will either fade away or be overwhelmed by rising liberal democratic forces. The liberal and leftist democracy protesters are a thin layer of plugged in, cosmopolitan, and modernized college youth in a still overwhelmingly poor and traditional society. So I expect negative effects on Egypt’s foreign policy from a ruling coalition including the Muslim Brothers. On the other hand, the army remains the major power and U.S. economic assistance gives us tremendous leverage. Rather than a full-scale Iran-style takeover (which is at least possible), we may be in for years of complicated jockeying for power among competing groups. But with the Muslim Brotherhood now in the mix, the center of gravity of Egyptian policy will likely be significantly changed. This could certainly emerge as a major campaign issue in 2012.