Should Washington Pick Egypt’s Next Leader?

The turmoil in Egypt, specifically in Cairo, turned violent in the past 36 hours as anti-government protesters clashed with pro-Mubarak groups.  During this period, and specifically today, the government crackdown widened to targeting foreign media.  Journalists and their crews were arrested, prevented from reporting, and beaten.  The anti-government protesters are pointing to Friday as a possible climax in what they are calling the “Friday of departure.”

President Mubarak, in an interview with ABC, said he would like to relinquish power now, but claims chaos will erupt if he did.  If he were to step down, or if he follows through on his promise not to run in the presidential election, the million dollar question in Washington becomes: who would the United States like to see as the new leader of Egypt?  And should Washington act to influence the outcome?

Over at The Skeptics, I address this by asking: Might it be better if the United States were to avoid micromanaging Egyptian politics altogether?  Whenever a crisis erupts in the world, policymakers usually approach the problem with the premise that Washington has to “do something.”  But must that include anointing another leader?

…Washington’s “do something” impulse seems to be overpowering common sense. Having backed the wrong person for too long, there is now a countervailing urge to correct our past error by backing the “right” person this time around.

I have a different idea. We should step back and consider that our close relationship with Mubarak over the years created a vicious cycle, one that inclined us to cling tighter and tighter to him as opposition to him grew. And as the relationship deepened, U.S. policy seems to have become nearly paralyzed by the fear that the building anger at Mubarak’s regime would inevitably be directed at us.

We can’t undo our past policies of cozying up to foreign autocrats (the problem extends well beyond Egypt) over the years. And we won’t make things right by simply shifting – or doubling or tripling – U.S. foreign aid to a new leader. We should instead be open to the idea that an arms-length relationship might be the best one of all.

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