When President Barack Obama canceled a joint military exercise with the Egyptians earlier this month in response to the army’s violent suppression of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations, Russia was quick to announce that it would arrange for such a drill instead.
A few days later, Saudi Arabia vowed to replace whatever financial aid the Americans might cut to express their disapproval of the military’s overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. “As for those who announced that they will stop their support to Egypt or threatened to stop it, for the Arab and Muslim world is rich with its people and capabilities and will not hesitate to offer a helping hand to Egypt,” said Prince Saud al-Faisal, the kingdom’s foreign minister.
The unlikely alliance, of sorts, between America’s strongest Arab ally and its former Cold War rival suggests the balance of power in the Middle East might be shifting in the United States’ disfavor.
Asia Times Online‘s “Spengler” columnist David P. Goldman believes this shift is driven by Russia’s and Saudi Arabia’s “profound common interest in containing jihadist radicalism in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular.” Russia worries that Chechnyan Islamists might join the insurgency in Syria against its ally, the secular dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Saudis mistrust the Muslim Brotherhood because it challenges the legitimacy of the monarchy which itself claims to represent political Islam. Hence Saudi Arabia’s support for Salafists in both Egypt and Syria.
The Saudis as well as their neighboring Arab Gulf leaders are disappointed with the United States’ failure to support them in containing the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise. The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius reports, “They see this as further evidence of American power in retreat globally, rather than, in simpler” — and, Ignatius believes, more accurate terms — “a function of the American public’s wariness, after Iraq and Afghanistan, of intervening in Muslim domestic conflicts.” The same newspaper editorialized that Obama’s “hesitant and indecisive response” to the Egyptian military’s brutal suppression of Muslim Brotherhood dissent — in which hundreds were killed — “only strengthened the picture of a president unwilling to act in the Middle East.”
Whereas the United States is apparently torn between its interests, which should compel it to back the military’s takeover in Egypt as it is more likely than the Muslim Brotherhood to keep the Suez Canal open and the peace treaty with Israel in place, and its values, which explain why so many Americans are appalled by the overthrow of a democratically-elected government, Russia has no such reservations. Its values inspire support for Christians in the Middle East — in Egypt, where Copts were discriminated against while the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, and in Syria, where all non-Sunni Muslims are victims of persecution and violence at the hands of Islamist rebels — while it has a clear interest in fighting radical Islam.
Thomas Graham, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs who sat on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, writes that in Moscow’s view, “the advance of radical Islam only bolsters international terrorist groups and poses a special threat to Russia with a population 10 to 15 percent Muslim.”
It sees radical Islam […] as the prime factor behind the growing instability in its North Caucasus. It is concerned that a triumphant radical Islam in the Arab world will invigorate comparable forces and threaten fragile secular regimes in Central Asia, a region Moscow considers essential to its own security. And it fears that radical Islam is slowly penetrating into its key Muslim-dominated provinces, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, which are rich in resources and sit astride the lines of communication between European Russia and Siberia and the Russian Far East.
“Principle and pragmatism thus come together,” Graham argues, in Russia’s support of Assad. The same can be argued for its policy in Egypt where it might also see an opportunity to expand its influence in a region that has long been dominated by American allies.
After Anwar Sadat removed Soviet troops from Egypt in 1972, the country tilted toward the United States. The 1979 peace treaty with Israel and billions of dollars in military aid cemented a partnership that was at the heart of an American order in the region which kept autocrats in power in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the smaller monarchies in the Persian Gulf. Diminished Soviet influence and the absence of state war between the Arab countries and Israel in subsequent years underlined the success of this strategy. American interests were served for thirty years.
Stability in the Middle East began to unravel in 2003 when the United States and other willing Western powers removed Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. While not an Arab ally, Hussein was nevertheless an asset in maintaining Sunni dominance in the region and containing Shia Iran. Hence American support for his regime in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.
Hussein’s fall alarmed the Saudis but it seemed manageable. Turkey hadn’t yet asserted itself as an alternative influence in the region. The informal — and never to be recognized! — alliance between Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the Gulf states was strong enough to keep Iran at bay.
The 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings were another blow. Event since then might have shattered the balance of power which so favored the United States. Not only did the Americans advise Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step down; they continued to prop up Nouri al-Maliki’s increasingly Shia government in Baghdad which removed Sunnis from power when the United States pulled out that year and has since moved closer to Iran.
The United States cannot be oblivious to the fact that it is losing friends in the Middle East. The lack of an overt policy to halt the demise of the pro-American order in the region may stem from the public’s war-wariness Ignatius described. There is also little in terms of opposition. As Goldman points out, Republican foreign policy spokesmen like Senator John McCain are even more forceful than members of the Obama Administration in demanding support for Arab “democracy” — regardless of the strategic losses that has so far implied for the United States, whether it was in Gaza, where 2006 elections allowed Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the United States, to take power; in Iraq, which no longer balances Iranian power, but is becoming an Iranian ally; or Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was unable or unwilling to combat an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai.
Whatever the reasons for America’s ineptitude, the result has been, as Miguel Nunes Silva observed at the Atlantic Sentinel a few months after Mubarak’s ouster, that Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia were “left alone fighting for a pro-Western order in the region” while America was distracted in Libya — an intervention of little strategic consequence that might actually have worsened the jihadist crisis in West Africa, prompting France to intervene in its former colony Mali earlier this year.
Russia opposed the Libyan intervention, arguing that states did not have a right to overthrow foreign leaders they disliked. It argued similarly against intervention in Syria where America’s failure to achieve its stated goal — “Assad must go” — might have convinced Putin that his American counterpart is “irredeemably weak,” writes The American Interest‘s Walter Russell Mead. “His failure to seize the opportunity for what the Russians … fear would have been an easy win in Syria cannot be explained by them in any other way.”
“This is dangerous,” according to Mead. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev concluded that President John F. Kennedy was weak and incompetent after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and proceeded to test his resolve in the Cuban missile crisis.
Khrushchev was wrong about Kennedy, and President Obama’s enemies are also underestimating him, but those underestimates can create dangerous crises before they are corrected.
America is unlikely to simply relinquish its influence in Egypt and Russia should think twice before trying to step into its place. Improved Russian military relations with Egypt would rightly be interpreted in Washington as a challenge to its dominant role in the region and could compel the United States to contain Russian influence elsewhere. A Georgia in NATO might not be worth the price of pulling Egypt back into Russia’s orbit.
More importantly, Egypt might not actually welcome Russia’s benevolence. Its military is currently in the process of upgrading its hardware. It would be costly and inefficient to suspend that process and instead of upgrading its F-16 fighter jets, for instance, buy Russian MiGs. Simply adding Russian helicopters, planes and tanks to aging American models would complicate interoperability while Egyptian officers could lose the opportunity to study at military academies in the United States.
Obama has temporarily halted the delivery of F-16s and Apache helicopters in protest to the military’s heavy-handed takeover. The generals in Egypt probably expect that the goods will eventually arrive. Only when they don’t might they consider Russia’s offer.