The Obama administration is taking the side of the Egyptian people against the Mubarak regime while continuing to engage Iran. In doing so, it risks creating the misleading impression throughout the Middle East that it is actually working to raise up the Islamic Republic over traditional American allies. We cannot allow ourselves to apply our democratic values more ruthlessly to our friends than to our adversaries. The Obama administration should seize this moment to revamp its policy toward democracy promotion in general. It must ensure that, in seeking to behave toward Egypt in a manner consistent with American ideals, it does not inadvertently assist the rise of Iran.
In Egypt we are witnessing the crisis not just of a regime, but of the regional order. For the last thirty years Egypt has been a pillar of the American security system in the region. At the very moment when Egypt became our staunch ally, the Islamic Revolution pulled Iran out of the American orbit. Since then, Iran has been working to undermine the United States by attacking the authority and legitimacy of its Arab allies. Naturally, then, Tehran has been publicly gloating over the riots in Egypt. In this regional contest, Egypt’s pain is Iran’s gain.
The travails of the Mubarak regime could not come at a worse time for the allies of the United States. Consider, for instance, developments in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is in the process of taking control of the government. This gambit marks a powerful expansion of Iranian and Syrian influence. For several years, propagandists from Tehran and Damascus have relentlessly spread the theme that the United States is a spent force. The resistance alliance of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas is on the rise, they claim. The allies of the United States are on their last legs: Like the South Vietnamese, the pro-American regimes will be overrun as soon as the Americans pull up their tents and go home.
Some actions of the Obama administration have inadvertently corroborated our adversaries’ narrative. For instance, the obvious interest of the administration to withdraw from Iraq has strengthened the Iranian claim that the United States is running for the exits. In addition, the decision by the administration to override Congress and send Ambassador Robert Ford to Damascus on a recess appointment was spun by Tehran and Damascus as the United States abjectly courting the resistance alliance. Because the ambassador’s appointment coincided precisely with the move by Hezbollah to take over Lebanon, the United States appears particularly weak and incapable of stopping the rise of Iran.
What material does Washington have at hand to construct an alternative narrative? The Obama administration is painfully aware that its alliances with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are unattractive to young Arabs. A coalition of octogenarian Arab autocrats and Zionists simply does not excite the imagination of the frustrated young people who, faced with bleak economic and political futures, now make up a majority of the population of the region. By contrast, Tehran and Damascus offer up a steady diet of red meat for the angry youth. They flout their defiance of the United States and Israel, blaming the problems of the region on the machinations of foreigners and Jews. Bold action, Iranian and Syrian propagandists claim, will drive the foreigners out, purify the homeland, and usher in a more righteous age.
In seeking to counter the Syrian-Iranian message, many are calling on the Obama administration to pressure the Mubarak regime to democratize. Advocates of democracy promotion in Egypt argue that the regime is the victim of its own shortsightedness. By destroying all credible, non-Islamist competitors for power, it actually abetted the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, its rival. The cronyism and corruption of the regime taxed even the endurance of the Egyptian people, who are renowned for their quiescence.
All of this is, of course, true. But a Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Cairo is, in fact, a realistic possibility, not simply the bogeyman that the Mubarak regime has habitually used to scare us. And a Brotherhood-dominated Egypt—if it were accompanied by the further consolidation of Iranian power in the region—would consign a generation of Middle Easterners to Islamist darkness. American influence would plummet.
Yes, we must press for democratic reform, but let us be sure to press surely and steadily. We seek to create a new order, not simply to wreck the old one. With respect to Egypt, we should be constrained by the tension between our values and our interests. With respect to Iran, no such tension impedes us. Our democratic values and our strategic interests are in perfect harmony. The Iranians aspire to greater freedom every bit as much as the Egyptians. Helping them to realize their dream will mitigate a strategic threat to the United States.
Michael S. Doran, a visiting professor at NYU’s Wagner School, is a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.