Idealist Notions versus Geopolitical Realities: Is US Foreign Policy towards Egypt and Syria Hypocritical?

American foreign policy has baffled me ever sine I began to study it. It is always steeped in some idealist notion such as democracy and conformation to international norms. US foreign policy uses the moral spectrum that evaluates the acts of man to examine the ‘rightness’ of state action. However, there are times when this idealist motivation meets a situation that is not congruent, that is not conformist which then leads to a policy that appears to be incoherent and ambivalent. Such is the case I see with American foreign policy towards Egypt and Syria.

Turmoil has engulfed the Middle East region of the world since the revolution began in Tunisia. Governments such the one in Libya and Egypt fell on the way, some violently while others fairly peacefully. At the outset, American foreign policy appeared to be catching up to the rapid moving events. However when it finally caught up with, the theme was centered on democracy, international law and the spread of human rights.

This has been a theme in American foreign policy since the days of Woodrow Wilson. He believed that democratic states do not wage war against each other, what later became the idea of democratic peace. At the time the US adopted and zealously followed the principle of isolation. However after being drawn into vortex of the great war that was started by the European powers, Wilson became convinced that the world needed American leadership. Sadly Congress did not agree with him.

Since then, many – if not all – American presidents adopted the notion of democracy and the crusader belief that they have the divinely appointed right to provide leadership to the world. However, after WWII Wilsonian idealist met global reality. Iran hostage crisis, Israeli-Palestinian relations, Rwandan Genocide, Suez Crisis among a plethora of conflicts provide crucial lessons to America that even as a great power; the only superpower, strategic interests were very much relevant. It is with through this lens I examine the situation in Egypt and Syria with respect to American foreign policy response.

Egyptian revolution ousted the incumbent Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Through a democratic election, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood took the realms of power. His name is Muhammed Morsi. This is a process well known to Americans as they perceive credible elections to be part and parcel of a democratic process. Therefore Morsi was democratically elected President of Egypt. But could American foreign policy reconcile this to its strategic interests in the Middle-East and more so the security of Israel?

Israel is often isolated in the region owing to ‘hostile’ neighbours. Since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, Arab states int he region have never fully accepted it because the land had been inhabited by Palestinians who were Arabs. Two major wars were fought and Israel aptly defended herself. So what is the connection between Israeli security and Egypt or Morsi for that matter?

In the last war of 1967, Egyptian support for the peace was crucial. Being a leading voice within the Arab league, it was seen as prudent to maintain a friendly Government in the country. For as long as the Government is friendly, American interests of Israeli security can be achieved.

Into the bargain, the history of the Suez Crisis of 1956 may have also provided fodder to American foreign policy thinking in seeking a friendly Government. The pathway would be a geopolitical minefield if it fell in the hands of anti-American forces in Egypt. This is the point at which oil from the region passes on its way to Western states,  major reason for Britain and France to engage in armed conflict in 1956.

Morsi being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood – a known Islamic fundamentalist group – becomes a problem in light of the above. Perhaps when Morsi decided to take up all constitutional powers and strip with the courts of their judicial powers, he had given his detractors, especially the United States, ammunition for his downfall. Morsi, unlike Mubarak, presented a challenge to US interests in the region because of his ties to the Brotherhood.

As proof, there were people funded by the US government (State Department) to create political turmoil in the country. Secondly, there was the statement from John Kerry that praised the military’s action. He said that it had ‘heard the cry of the people’ and responded accordingly. This meant that the highest ranking diplomat in the US approved of the military’s action.

Chaos engulfed Egypt with pro and anti-Morsi demonstrators clashing in major cities. News images of military weaponry, most likely US funded, trained their barrels on Egyptian people. Thousands died and scores were injured including in an infamous stand-off at a Mosques that subsequently served as a morgue and hospital. So is this democracy as Egyptians wanted? It is not a breach of international law to use such weapons on your population? Should we then not include American interests in the region while analyzing the chaos in Egypt?

The Syrian script is different. Chants of war are gathering in intensity with the aim of ‘punishing’ Assad’s Government for alleged use chemical weapons. Whereas preliminary results by different western powers say that it was used, none can convincingly argue that Assad’s Government is responsible. The UN is also conducting an investigation of its own which will most likely be used to draft a resolution for the Syrian situation.

Talk of the attacks are centered on the enforcement of international law. Chemical weapons have been banned under international humanitarian law and thus its use outlawed. Thus its use, which may be likely, should be punished and must be punished.

Politically, the Syrian regime is of little significance to US interests. Therefore its fall could present a benefit to US foreign policy that if it stood. Unlike Egypt, Syria did not have so strong a bond with the US outside that legally enshrined in the UN Charter.

So, there are two situations with similar facts, breaches of international law, but different approaches in US foreign policy response. In Egypt, the military is couched as liberators while that in Syria are the embodiment of evil. Egyptian strategic value – unlike Syrian value – may far outweigh demands of democracy and human rights; idealistic notion buckling under hard geopolitical realities.

In conclusion, if one looked at US foreign policy toward Syria and Egypt, one will definitely conclude that American foreign policy is hypocritical. However, if one studied American strategic interests all over the world, one may begin to understand that idealist crusader notion are subservient to geopolitical realities and that American foreign policy may not be that ambivalent.