Editor's Note: Nicholas Burns is GlobalPost's senior foreign affairs columnist. He writes a bimonthly column on the international issues that shape our world.
CAMBRIDGE, Ma. — Wednesday’s dramatic overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt has catapulted the Middle East’s pivotal country into its second revolutionary moment in three years. It is also a wake-up call for the United States.
As Washington debates how to respond, here are five reasons why the White House, Congress and the American public should be concerned about events in Egypt.
First, Egypt continues to matter to the US. As the keystone state in the region, the fate of the Egyptian revolution will have a decisive impact on many of the other countries whose stability and future is very much hanging in the balance two and a half years after the start of the Arab revolutions.
Washington cannot focus its energies on all 22 Arab states simultaneously, and Egypt should be the overwhelming priority. That is one reason why staying involved in Egypt, making a substantial increase in American economic aid, and resolving to make a much greater effort to support democratic forces there is so important.
Second, this week’s events in Egypt also remind us, once again, of the continued importance of the Middle East to American interests. The Obama administration announced in 2011 a major shift in American foreign policy toward Asia. It was widely understood to be a pivot from our decades-long involvement in the turbulent Middle East to a priority focus on Asia, with a rising China challenging us for global power.
The instinct that Asia will be the most important region for American engagement in this century is not wrong. It is just premature.
Events in Egypt and the continued challenges of the bloody civil war in Syria, the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian struggle, and a recalcitrant Iran mean the US will be more occupied on a daily basis with the problems of the Middle East than any other region for at least the rest of the decade — and probably well beyond. America’s vital interests are still very much on the line there. The region’s poverty, instability, energy resources, growing Shia-Sunni divide and revolutionary ferment all point to a continuing American preoccupation. Any dream of a sharp shift of American attention away from the Middle East is illusory.
Third, the US would be smart to maintain a strong link to the major power centers in Egyptian politics, especially the military. To ensure a continued peace between Egypt and Israel — one of the most important and enduring of all American interests — US officials will need to continue to cultivate and work closely with the Egyptian military, one of the few institutions in Egypt that is still effective in this revolutionary era.
While the Camp David Accords negotiated by Jimmy Carter 34 years ago produced a cold peace between Egypt and Israel, the absence of war between them is still a singular advantage for the US and the Arab world, and is an irreplaceable factor in Israel’s strategic security. With its powerful military and security forces, Egypt is critical to the long-term US effort to combat radical terrorist groups in the Middle East. Egypt is also a leading Arab partner in helping the US to contain Iranian power in the Middle East and to blunt its effort to become a nuclear weapons power. In other words, Egypt is a crucial partner on the key US interests in the region.
Fourth, President Barack Obama will face, as he did in pushing Mubarak from power in early 2011, another complex juggling act in balancing competing American interests in the weeks ahead. On the one hand, he will have to secure the concrete security priorities — peace with Israel, Iran and terrorism — and on the other to stay true to the democratic ideals that have always been important to Americans and their role in the world. Maintaining a close, working relationship with Egypt’s generals is the best way to secure our concrete interests. But, relying in the long term on their authoritarian instincts is at odds with the democratic ideals that lie at the heart of our role in the world. President Obama clearly recognizes this dilemma. He will not be the first or last American president to be challenged by a struggle between our principles and our concrete interests. But, he will surely have to confront again this basic choice in deciding how best to work with Egypt.
Fifth and finally, the US should consider the fall of the Morsi government and the complicated questions ahead as a wake-up call for its policy in Egypt specifically and the Middle East in general. Given the stakes involved, the Congress and administration did not make Egypt as clear a priority in the past two years as they should have. Washington now has a chance to mount a much more significant economic, trade and investment program with Europe, China, Japan and the international financial institutions to address the central issue at stake — the economic chaos and lack of growth and hope in the Arab world’s largest country. The next government in Cairo will likely sink or swim based on its ability to stabilize the failing economy and adopt more decisive long-term policies to revive it.
This is a time for Washington to lead. One of the lessons many US leaders have learned from 9/11 and the two wars since is that the US has been overextended in the world and should be careful about diving into yet another Middle East quagmire. That is surely a sensible instinct.
But, the US really has no choice but to be re-engage in Egypt in a more focused and determined way. We can start by clarifying the confusion in Egyptian minds about just what we are up to. Many young, secular and democratic Egyptians believe the US was overly supportive of the Morsi regime, particularly during the recent political crisis. Most Islamists, however, despite our decent working relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood government, clearly distrust the US. Our interests, traditions and instincts should lead us to support the forces of democracy, tolerance, women’s rights and reform deliberately.
In the end, both groups will respect US power and influence. What is needed most of all is leadership and a sense of real purpose from Washington. Without it, Egypt will likely fail again, and the United States’ own interests will suffer in the world’s most unstable and dangerous region.
Nicholas Burns, GlobalPost senior foreign affairs columnist, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is faculty chair of the school’s Middle East Initiative, India & South Asia Program, and is director of the Future of Diplomacy Project. He served in the United States Foreign Service for 27 years until his retirement in April 2008. Burns was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008. Prior to that, he was Ambassador to NATO (2001-2005), Ambassador to Greece (1997-2001), and State Department Spokesman (1995-1997). Follow him on Twitter @RNicholasBurns.