In 1820, the year the Missouri Compromise cleaved Maine from Massachusetts to maintain the Congressional balance between free and slave states, Thomas Jefferson wrote of the peculiar institution: “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”
Until 2011, U.S. administrations were more or less content to hold close their Arab wolves (Mubarak, ben Ali, and the semi-tamed Qaddafi). And in 2011, once the issue was forced, the wolves were rather easily let go. But as Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces showed late last week when it raided the offices of NGOs dedicated to nourishing Egypt’s abused civil society, Hosni Mubarak was not the only wolf in Cairo. The remaining wolves (Tantawi, Mohammed, Anan) present U.S. policymakers with a trickier problem than the old strongman.
Holding these wolves—which in concrete terms means continuing annual military aid payments of $1.3 billion, second only to Israel’s—will, to say the least, compromise the Obama administration’s attempt to demonstrate its solidarity with demonstrators. On the other hand, some fear that letting them go will benefit the Islamic extremists they once held at bay. This seemingly dichotomous choice results precisely from the ruthless trampling of centrist political movements over decades of military rule.
Indeed, as I heard John P. Entelis emphatically aver at a panel discussion at the Elliott School this fall, stage new elections anywhere in the Arab world and Islamists will win, in the first contest and probably in the second, too. But, as he went on to say, this is not because of the immutable, violent Islamism warned against by Middle Eastern regimes; it is because of the very conditions those regimes deliberately created. Where secular political opposition was too dangerous to brook, Islamism was useful as a bogeyman with which to scare the West—“it’s us or them.” Thus did Islamist opposition groups accrue the advantages we see today.
We will never be certain that Arab democracy will produce friendly, docile allies. In fact, in the short term we should assume that it will not. The lesson of 2011, however, is that no moral alternative to democracy existed ever, and no practical alternative exists anymore, for America. Our choice is not between democracy and theocracy, or between chaos and order. Those choices are for Egyptians. Our $1.3 billion choice is simple: do we hold the wolf or let it go?