Michael H. Hunt: Obama’s Cairo, Then and Now

Home and Abroad: U.S. Foreign Relations in Historical Perspective[This article is cross-posted from the author’s blog, On Washington and the World.]

President Obama’s “new beginning” address delivered in Cairo four years ago was filled with the high-minded platitudes that have become a hallmark of his speech making. He stood before the audience at Cairo University as the exponent of progress, peace, and cooperation. No surprise here. He made clear his opposition to “violent extremism in all of its forms.” Again no surprise. He worked his way through the list of other Washington preoccupations: stopping nuclear proliferation, cleaning up failed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and managing the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The passage of time has done nothing to make this address seem either fresh or illuminating.

What does stand out in retrospect is the president’s silence on the role that the United States has played as supporter of secular autocrats in the region over the last half century, often stepping in where the British or French had earlier taken control and then faltered. Far from focusing on the U.S. entanglement in the region as a source of conflict, Obama pointed instead to a set of grand abstractions—centuries-old tension between the West and Islam, colonialism, and globalization. His United States was a benevolent bystander while other powers and other forces made history and created the tensions now coursing through the Middle East.

Perhaps the most telling part of the 2009 Cairo address came when Obama chided those who have misperceived the U.S. in terms of “the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.” Is it really possible he does not understand the degree to which the U.S. has been guided by self interest? Surely his aides can tell him what any textbook makes abundantly clear: that U.S. policy was long shaped by Israel, oil, and containment. Today Israel and oil persist with the terrorist threat substituting for the old communist menace.

Equally striking is Obama’s inability to see that the sustained U.S. attempt to shape the region follows closely the pattern of imperial intervention by other powers, with the tools much the same whether diplomatic pressure, the creation and support of clients, the reward of aid packages and trade deals, and the training of friendly militaries. The “crude stereotype” may be not be so crude. Indeed, like some stereotypes it may have a considerable element of truth about it.

What this speech says today—in the wake of the military coup against an elected government in Cairo—is that the change president is mostly about policy continuity. Washington’s support for autocrats is an old story. Reliance on strongmen, especially military strongmen, was a pronounced feature of the global Cold War. The Cold War, far from an aberration, built on a pattern that had become well established earlier in the century. Elected governments, Washington feared, might be swayed by popular passions or betrayed by their own immaturity. Coups whether in Iran in 1953 or in Egypt in 2013 paved the way for strongmen promising stability and accommodating U.S. interests. Alas, the clients often are less responsive than we would like. There is a long record of the tail wagging the dog. But the national security establishment has recognized that some local waywardness is part of the price of any collaborative relationship.

However anguished the Obama administration may be, it is not rudderless. It is following the course long ago marked out by an intrusive and regionally disruptive policy of “strategic realism.” Egypt is important not because it is (as that mystifying phrase has it) “a bedrock of peace” but because it blocks an Islamist party that was feeling its oats and because it guarantees military access to U.S. forces so active in the region over the last two decades. State repression and violence are the price to pay for advancing self interest.

There is a larger price for pursuing this course. It confirms not just in the Middle East but worldwide the “crude stereotype” that Obama decried. The United States continues to prop up friendly, secular authoritarians and thus continues to feed popular antipathy and suspicion that in turn inspires the resistance we call terrorism.

This course also leaves American policy locked in a long standing contradiction, professing high minded principles, above all support for democracy, while in practice giving priority to national self interest. So even as we deepen alienation abroad, we compound our own confusion about what we really want from this part of the world.

The Obama administration may yet decide to call a coup a coup and quit propping up the Egyptian military—and with good reason. The U.S. project in the Middle East has lost its mojo. Domestic tolerance has dwindled while the U.S. tools to shape the region are not working. But the difficulty Washington is having turning in a fresh direction is testimony to the claims of self interest and the constraints and confusion spawned by a now troubled half-century campaign of regional engagement.


Michael H. Hunt is Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author or editor of eleven books, including Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (with Steven I. Levine), The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance, and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. Read his other guest posts on this blog or visit his website.