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Egypt a 'Textbook' Foreign Policy Dilemma

Interviewee: James A. Baker III, Honorary Chair, Institute for Public Policy, Rice University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR
February 2, 2011

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James A. Baker, III, who as secretary of state worked closely with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on several crucial Mideast initiatives, says successive U.S. administrations tried "to get him to agree to reform" without success. Baker says Mubarak was reluctant to allow other political parties to form so he could say, "it's either me or it's the Muslim Brotherhood, and he knew that nobody wanted the Muslim Brotherhood." He says the Mubarak crisis "is a textbook example of why it's hard to conduct foreign policy." Baker added: "We have to consider principles and values, yes: democracy, human rights, freedom. But we also have to consider the national interest, whether or not the particular entity we're dealing with is aligned with the United States or not. And those two considerations meet head-on in this conflict."

President Mubarak just gave a speech where he says he's not going to run for reelection. The question is whether this is enough to satisfy the crowds. You've known Mubarak even before he was president, right?

That's right, I first met Mubarak when he was vice president of Egypt. He came to Washington in the aftermath of the 1980 elections, and I was the White House chief of staff-designate for President [Ronald] Reagan.  I remember him striding into the room as only a general could, and his first words to me were, "Where are my tanks?" Evidently he'd been promised some armaments from the United States, and they hadn't been delivered. I had extensive dealings, of course, with him in the years that followed. Not just as chief of staff at the White House, some even as secretary of the Treasury in connection with Egypt's IMF loan program, and then, of course, even more extensive dealings when I was secretary of State in the Arab-Israeli peace process and in the efforts to kick Iraq out of Kuwait.

This is a very, very dangerous situation. The jury's still out on what the end result's going to be here.

What was Mubarak's position on [the Persian Gulf war against Iraq]?

He was very supportive of the United States and the international coalition. He was good about picking up the phone and talking to, for instance [President] Hafez Assad of Syria, [not only] in terms of the Middle East peace process, but also in getting him engaged with the [anti-Iraq] coalition. People forget the fact that the coalition that liberated Kuwait contained troops from Arab nations. It was Arab nations going to war against another Arab country, and Egypt and Syria sent troops to the Gulf. The other time I spent quite a bit of time with him was in the lead-up to the Madrid Peace Conference (PDF). He was extremely helpful to the United States in getting that accomplished.

So, from the time that Egypt gave up on the Soviet Union and aligned itself with the United States, they've been a pretty damn good ally in terms of security and political issues in the Middle East, notwithstanding their lack of respect for human rights and democracy for their people. But we never were able to get him to agree to reform. Successive administrations worked on him, encouraged him to do that. It never took root, it never happened. In fact there was reluctance on the part of his administration to permit the formation of other political parties that could be counterweights to the Muslim Brotherhood. So he was always in a position to say, "It's either me or it's the Muslim Brotherhood," and he knew that nobody wanted the Muslim Brotherhood.

But, I want to say another thing: This is a textbook example of why it's hard to conduct foreign policy. I say that because in the formulation and implementation of our foreign policy, we have to consider principles and values, yes, democracy, human rights, freedom. But we also have to consider the national interest, whether or not the particular entity we're dealing with is aligned with the United States or not. And those two considerations meet head-on in this conflict.

What's your sense now? I mean, no one knows the future.

This is something that should generate worry on the part of a lot of people. You can bet your life that there are a lot of people who are worried in Israel. When you have a Muslim Brotherhood official come out, as we saw a day or so ago, and say if Mubarak goes, you will see war between Egypt and Israel, that's pretty tough stuff. And Egypt is the foundation block for so many Arab countries. They're the biggest Arab country. They've been a leader, they have eighty-five million people. So this is a very, very dangerous situation. The jury's still out on what the end result's going to be here.

I wonder if Egypt has it in itself to have a government that's not led by the military. Because they haven't had a civilian government pretty much ever.

It's been a long, long time. But I want to tell you, the military has been a force for calm and stability in this crisis. They have conducted themselves in a very fine way. Now was that because of the political leadership or was that the military themselves, I can't answer that for you.

It's ironic that President Obama chose Cairo to give his major Middle East speech in 2009, which called for a "new beginning" in relations between the United States and Muslims. Do you think Obama's gone too far in urging Mubarak to step down?

Well, we don't know the extent to which he's urged him. We don't know what message Frank Wisner, who was the ambassador to Egypt when I was secretary of State, carried. But, the answer is no, I think the Obama administration has handled this properly. It goes back to what I told you earlier about the difficulty of practicing foreign policy. You've got to weigh principles and values on the one hand and national interest on the other. And, it would have been terrible, in my view, if on the first day of this Obama and Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton had totally pulled the rug out from under Mubarak. That would send a horrible message to other countries in the region about being allied with the United States. They've handled it reasonably well.

You've got to weigh principles and values on the one hand and national interest on the other. And it would have been terrible if on the first day of this, Obama and Clinton had totally pulled the rug out from under Mubarak.

I suppose the other Arab leaders in the Middle East must be scared out of their wits now. I'm thinking of Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

I see a difference there, and I'm thinking, you're right, Jordan certainly, and Algeria and Yemen we've seen this happening there.

Do you think the monarchies have a special survival quality?

No, I don't necessarily think so. But the reason why I said what I said about Saudi Arabia is because there aren't a lot of poor people in Saudi Arabia. You know, they may not be employed, but they have homes, they get support from the government. There's some dissatisfaction in terms of freedom and human rights, but there's not the poverty that you find in Egypt.

The Americans have known about the economic problems in Egypt for years.

Yes, we have, of course, when I was Treasury secretary, we had an IMF program with Egypt, and we could never get them to live up to the obligations of the program.

From the Israeli point of view, this is really nerve-wracking.

This is very difficult from their standpoint, because they, chief among other entities in the region, do not want to see a radical government in Egypt. And it's understandable; they've got a lot at stake here. So, it's really important that, however this plays out, that it doesn't end up with a radical Islamist entity on their borders.

Most observers say in a free election, the Muslim Brotherhood wouldn't get that much support among the Egyptians. But I don't know how strong the other parties would be.

Well, right now, there aren't really any other parties, you see. They need time to form parties and to campaign. The Muslim Brotherhood today is outlawed. Will they be permitted to partake in this election? Nobody knows the answer. It's really very difficult. The Muslim Brotherhood, as I understand it, represents about 30 percent of the polity, which is a pretty substantial amount, but I can't verify that.

If you were still secretary of State, what would you be doing now? I guess you'd have to craft a pretty good statement in response to Mubarak announcing that he's not running for reelection.

The administration was handling this the very first day or so; they were too quick to indicate that they might pull the rug out from under him. Since then, they've been very moderate in their approach. They haven't taken one side or the other; they've recognized that we have equities on both sides of this in terms of our principles and values and our national interests. So what they should do is welcome what he's done [and] work to see if it's going to be acceptable. I think, frankly, that they would have preferred for him to say, "OK, I'm stepping down, there'll be a transitional government that will do these reforms that I talked about in my remarks."

If he'd stepped down, then you probably would have been able to count upon his acceptance from the protestors. Because what else do they require? On the other hand, there are a lot of people in Egypt today who are upset, they can't get to the grocery store; you know the antiquities are being looted. They're upset with the anarchy and the lawlessness. So, there may be a substantial number who say, "This is enough."

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