Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Showing posts for "U.S. Foreign Policy"

Grading Mearsheimer

by Steven A. Cook
Egypt's Prime Minister Essam Sharaf (L) speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama next to Egypt's Minister of Finance Samir Radwan (C) before posing for a group photo at the G8 summit in Deauville (Philippe Wojazer/Courtesy Reuters). Egypt's Prime Minister Essam Sharaf (L) speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama next to Egypt's Minister of Finance Samir Radwan (C) before posing for a group photo at the G8 summit in Deauville (Philippe Wojazer/Courtesy Reuters).

When I was at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I enrolled in a seminar on the revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe with Professor Michael Mandelbaum.  The Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and Czecholsolvakia were not quite my thing, but the course was an interesting diversion from the Middle East and it was topical (this was 1994).  When Mandelbaum—who is now a friend and mentor—returned my first paper, he scratched along the bottom of the last page, “Your conclusions are surely correct, but you make a series of dubious assertions along the way.”  I had the same reaction when I read John J. Mearsheimer’s recent contribution to The National Interest, “America Unhinged.” Read more »

Egypt: Mockery

by Steven A. Cook
Riot police and army personnel take their positions during clashes with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi around the area of Rabaa al Adawiya square on August 14, 2013 (Asmaa Waguih/Courtesy Reuters). Riot police and army personnel take their positions during clashes with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi around the area of Rabaa al Adawiya square on August 14, 2013 (Asmaa Waguih/Courtesy Reuters).

There is no shortage of advice in the United States about how the Obama administration should approach Egypt.  The familiar ring of policy prescriptions bouncing around the Beltway and beyond is either a testament to a lack of creativity or limited leverage or the return of some version of the political order that prevailed under Mubarak. Take, for example, Saturday’s lead editorial in the Washington Post called, “The U.S. Must Confront the Egyptian Military’s Push for Authoritarian Rule.”  It could have been written in 2007 after Hosni Mubarak pushed through a series of constitutional reforms.  In fact, “Constitutional Autocracy” from March 2007 must have been a template of sorts for Saturday’s piece.  Don’t get me wrong, the editorial board’s criticism of Egypt’s draft constitution is spot on, but its policy prescriptions seem a bit tattered.  According to the folks over on 15th Street, now that it is clear that Egypt is not on the road to democracy (as if that has not been fairly obvious for some time) the Obama administration should “suspend aid and cooperation with the regime until it frees political prisoners and adopts a genuine democratic path.” Read more »

Weekend Reading: America’s Quagmire?, an Egyptian Thanksgiving, and Foreign Workers No Longer in Saudi

by Steven A. Cook
Yemeni workers, deported from Saudi Arabia, wait to leave a bus on which they were deported, at the Saudi al-Tewal border outpost with Yemen (Khaled Abdullah/Courtesy Reuters). Yemeni workers, deported from Saudi Arabia, wait to leave a bus on which they were deported, at the Saudi al-Tewal border outpost with Yemen (Khaled Abdullah/Courtesy Reuters).

Ammar Abdulhamid looks at the consequences of U.S. inaction in Syria and elsewhere.

Maged Atiya remembers his first Thanksgiving. Read more »

Why Suez Still Matters

by Steven A. Cook
Aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) passes under the Friendship Bridge during a transit of the Suez Canal (Handout/Courtesy Reuters). Aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) passes under the Friendship Bridge during a transit of the Suez Canal (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).

The article below was originally published here on ForeignAffairs.com on Wednesday, December 4, 2013.

The drive from Rafah, the Egyptian town that borders the Gaza Strip, down to Ismailiyya, a port on the Suez Canal, is tedious. Although the route skirts al-Arish, the capital of the northern Sinai governorate, it passes an otherwise featureless landscape for 150 miles. Toward the end of the trip, if the timing is just right, out of nowhere an oil tanker or container ship might suddenly disrupt the horizon as it appears to glide through the Egyptian desert. Read more »

Egypt: Anchors Away

by Steven A. Cook
Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Egyptian Defense Minister General Abdel Fatah al Sisi (R) in Cairo on November 3, 2013. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Egyptian Defense Minister General Abdel Fatah al Sisi (R) in Cairo on November 3, 2013 (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters).

Over the last week or so, there have been more than a few stinging indictments of U.S.-Middle East policy.  Whether it is Iran’s nuclear program, the civil war in Syria, or Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to push Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the Obama administration is near universally derided as both timorous and out-classed in the face of formidable adversaries. It’s been an impressive pile-on even if some of this commentary is actually more about politics than analysis.  Among the various op-eds, columns, and articles, two caught my attention.  On November 8 in his regular column for Foreign Policy, James Traub skewered the White House for failing to talk tough to the Egyptian military about its blatantly un-democratic approach to post-Morsi Egypt.  A few days later, the Washington Post’s deputy editorial page editor, Jackson Diehl, published a stem-winder of a column that ripped Kerry on every important issue in the Middle East, including the Secretary’s apparent willingness to accommodate what is shaping up to be Egypt’s non-democratic transition. Read more »

Red Star Over Cairo?

by Steven A. Cook
MiG-29 "Strizhi" fighter planes fly in formation during the international air show MAKS-2007 in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow (Sergei Karpukhin/Courtesy Reuters). MiG-29 "Strizhi" fighter planes fly in formation during the international air show MAKS-2007 in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow (Sergei Karpukhin/Courtesy Reuters).

When I heard that Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his colleague Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, were to visit Cairo, I dusted off my copies of Mohammed Hassanein Heikal’s The Sphinx and the Commissar and Soviet Policy Toward the Middle East since 1970 by Robert O. Freedman. I am glad I still have these books.  They remind those of us too young to remember fully the extent of Moscow’s once rather robust presence in Egypt.   Against the background of fraught relations between Washington and Cairo, an underlying theme of the press coverage—in both Egypt and the West—of the Lavrov/Shoigu visit is the potential for Russia “to replace” the United States as Egypt’s patron.  I understand why the media like this angle, but the idea that Russia will supplant Washington lacks historical context and is impractical for the Egyptians.  Those wistful for the days when Moscow financed and helped build the Aswan High Dam and provided copious amounts of weaponry to Cairo have allowed time to romanticize what was often a difficult relationship.  They also fail to grasp how important American political, diplomatic, and especially military support is for the Egyptians.  All that said, there are three important reasons why the Russian foreign and defense ministers have suddenly appeared in Cairo: Read more »

Turkey: Spies Like Us

by Steven A. Cook
A Turkish flag flutters near the monument of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 24, 2013 (Marko Djurica/Courtesy Reuters). A Turkish flag flutters near the monument of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 24, 2013 (Marko Djurica/Courtesy Reuters).

I co-authored this piece with my friend and colleague, Michael Koplow, author of the blog Ottomans and Zionists.

Ehud Barak’s political instincts have never been great, but his security instincts are generally top-notch. So when he warned in 2010 that any intelligence information shared with Turkey might be passed on to Iran, his fears may not have been completely unfounded. David Ignatius reported yesterday that in 2012, Turkey deliberately blew the cover of ten Iranians who were working as Israeli agents and exposed their identities to the Iranian government. Ignatius also wrote that in the wake of the incident, which was obviously a large intelligence setback for efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program, the United States did not protest directly to Turkey and instead walled off intelligence issues from broader policymaking. Read more »

Egypt: Reductio Ad Absurdum

by Steven A. Cook
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi shout slogans during a protest against the military (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi shout slogans during a protest against the military (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

Outsiders tend to underestimate the deep psychological impact that the last almost three years have had on Egyptians.  Not long after the exhilaration of Mubarak’s exit, Egyptians confronted the complexities of their reality.  What followed is now a well-worn story of disappointment, tragedy, more disappointment, some more exhilaration, and despair.  There are, of course, Egyptians who are looking forward to better days now that the Muslim Brotherhood experiment has been short-circuited.  Still, the uncertainty and violence have taken a toll.  For good reason, Egypt is a country collectively on-edge. Although it has avoided the general depravity that characterizes Syria—with perhaps the exception of the Sinai—the delegitimizing and dehumanizing discourse that is now common in Egyptian debates about the future makes the search, conducted mostly by outsiders, for negotiation and consensus fanciful.  Egypt has reached the stage where, despite a roadmap for reconstituting an electoral political order, the goal remains for one group or another to impose its political will on the others, just as it has been since February 2011. Read more »

U.S.-Egypt Relations: It’s Time to Go

by Steven A. Cook
An Apache helicopter flies over Tahrir Square during a protest to support the army, in Cairo July 26, 2013 (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). An Apache helicopter flies over Tahrir Square during a protest to support the army, in Cairo July 26, 2013 (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

As many are now well aware, word came on Wednesday evening via a leak to CNN that the United States was cutting military aid to Egypt.  After almost a day of furious speculation on Twitter and elsewhere, the outlines of the administration’s plan have come into view, though still without the benefit of an official statement.  It seems that Washington will delay the delivery of 10 Apache helicopters, and according to press reports, dock $260 million of cash transfers to the government and pull back on plans for a $300 million loan guarantee. Read more »