A Truman Doctrine for Egypt?

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Max Boot has a short piece today for Commentary about the growing muscle being shown by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its liberal competitors’ struggles to keep pace. Boot doesn’t take the plunge into suggesting, as some others have, that the MB rise signals the return of the Caliphate. (It’s reassuring that CFR scholar status seems to precludes one from launching entirely unsubstantiated claims in a way running for high office in this country evidently doesn’t.) Despite this, Boot nevertheless proposes that the US now emulate the post-World War II presidents’ active support for anti-communist parties to counteract the Reds. Writes Boot: “We need a similar policy in Egypt to keep the “Greens” (the Islamists) out of power.”

Before we do try to reclaim the magic of the golden era of containment, let’s take a quick stroll down memory lane to recall what exactly our support for anti-communist parties meant in practice. A few examples:

Greece: The intervention that triggered the Truman Doctrine, the US’s funneling of hundreds of millions of dollars in military and economic aid to the Greek Royalists on the basis of trumped-up claims about Soviet meddling in Greek affairs defined the parameters of containment for the next four decades. Despite repeated overtures by the leftists–the vast majority of whom were not communists–to end hostilities with the Royalists in return for free and fair elections, the US rejected the idea out of hand, fearing that, as one top official put it, compromise would require “a promise of general elections carried out under a government which would include, if not Communists, at least certain champions of compromise and reconciliation between the East and the West.” The horror! Instead, the US cast its lot with a government the US ambassador to Greece at the time admitted, “actually approximates fascism.” The Royalists eventually prevailed, but Greek society would be wracked for decades by instability and lingering animosities, as the right-wing government maintained its repressive and anti-democratic policies.

Guatemala: In 1951, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán was democratically elected president of Guatemala, but his “radical and nationalist policies” worried the CIA, and his land redistribution program pissed off the influential American United Fruit Company, with its large holdings inside Guatemala. In 1954, an American-trained and supported group of exiles, led by Carlos Castillo Armas, overthew Árbenz. As leader of the governing junta, Armas ruled with an iron-fist until his assassination in 1957. Coups, civil war and genocide have largely defined Guatemalan politics since, a legacy that survives to this day. For an illuminating depiction of modern Guatemala, see David Grann’s excellent article in last week’s New Yorker.

Congo: Convinced, as David Schmitz, author of The United States and Right Wing Dictatorships: 1965-1989, writes, that “black African were not yet ready for self-rule and worried that ‘premature independence’ would mean unstable governments threatened by communist movements,” the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations all shamelessly meddled in the internal affairs of the Congo. Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first democratically-elected leader and unabashed pan-Africanist, represented everything the US feared. With the CIA unable to assassinate Lumumba itself, the US secretly supplied cash to his domestic opponents, who arrested Lumumba, tortured him, and then killed him. In search of elusive stability, the US turned to General Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, whose 30-year rule came to define the word kleptocracy. Stability remained elusive, however, as Mobutu’s strong-armed rule predictably triggered conflict with domestic and international foes. An estimated three-million people died in a civil war between 1998 and 2003, and the country remains one of the most violent and unstable on earth.

Boot concludes with this depressing assessment: “The battle for the new Middle East is ongoing. We must not lose out because of our unwillingness to play the game the way our enemies do.

The truth is we have playing that game for a long time now. Our support for Hosni Mubarak and his fellow Middle Eastern autocrats was nothing but an extension of the cynical realpolitik practiced in Greece, Guatemala and the Congo (not to mention Chile, South Africa, Vietnam and Iran). The future of the Middle East is not ours to determine. We’d be well-advised to bear that in mind moving forward.


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