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US-Egypt: Use Power Softly and Forget the Stick

US-Egypt: Use Power Softly and Forget the Stick

Protestors Gather in Tahrir Square, Cairo – Image Credit: GETTY

NOTE:   This post was co-authored by guest blogger, Robert R. Gosende.  Mr. Gosende is a retired Foreign Service Officer who now serves as the John W. Ryan Fellow in International Education at the University at Albany.  He was President Clinton’s Special Envoy for Somalia in 1992.


In case you weren’t paying attention before, the events that have unfolded across the Arab world should have alerted you to a growing wave in the region. Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Yemen form a arc of gathering political tumult. Each country has its own historical contours, but this moment is offering a cumulative power that demonstrates that the times are indeed changing. And the ways in which the U.S. engages the Arab world must change accordingly. Fast.

Nobody is watching these events more closely than Washington’s policymaking circles. And what we see is a glaring lacuna insofar as U.S. policy in the region is concerned as we have sought to come to grips with U.S./Arab/Muslim World relations since September 11, 2001.  Throughout this period Egypt has been well in the background, with private conversations at the leadership level defining the bilateral relationship, marked by deals struck and support delivered to sclerotic regimes.  Egypt, however, as the largest state in the region and also as the intellectual and cultural center of the Arab and Muslim worlds must be drawn much more into our thinking now as we seek to reach out to this crucial region.

We could speculate on what has brought us to where we are insofar as U.S. policy is concerned but that is not what is important today.  Today we need to urgently think through what political change in Egypt will mean for the U.S.  To do so we will need to recognize Egypt’s centrality insofar as U.S. relations with the region are concerned.  So much attention has been focused on Iraq over the past decade that it seems there is little else on the minds of U.S. policymakers.  But we need to refocus on the center of gravity in the region.  There is immense opportunity for us as a nation as we work to set our relations with the most important Arab state and one of the world’s most important countries on a better track.

As the President indicated on Tuesday, we need to innovate.  20th Century thinking will not work for 21st Century international relations.  “Success in a changing world will require reform, respect, and innovation with a new level of engagement in our foreign affairs,” was the manner in which President Obama put this on Tuesday evening also adding that there has to be “purpose behind our power.”  He also said that, “America stands with the people of Tunisia and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”

To think through the central challenge of the future of U.S./Egyptian relations, the President should convene a colloquium of experts who would gather immediately to advise him and Secretary Clinton on the road forward between Egypt and the U.S. and inferentially the region.  As indicated in the recently completed Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, this road to the future should indeed be based upon a new level of civilian engagement i.e., significantly strengthened educational and cultural relations need to be the hallmarks of how we will move forward now so that none will misread, as the President said, “the purpose behind our power.”  The last thing that Egypt or Tunisia needs is so-called technical assistance that deliver consultants and technology in the name of democracy.  They have been tried for years and produced minimal results, at best – and at a great cost. Such programs put the U.S. in the position of the world’s ponderous pedant lecturing on governance, wagging a finger and seeking to teach new lessons on how things should be carried out in a real democracy.

No, what is needed now is for the U.S. to offer programs in real partnership and the promise of sustained value: educational and cultural exchanges that involve students, faculty, young political leaders, artists and others.  This is not just a nice thing to do, it is at the heart of how we can re-set a relationship between the American people and the Arab world.  Military aid and boondoggle development projects have not worked (and have often pitted the U.S. against the citizens in Arab countries). Ask most Egyptians who Mubarak’s chief sponsor is and they will say it is the US.  Do you think, then, that they are brimming with good feelings toward the U.S. as they stand up against the batons and water guns of Mubarak’s security forces?  But America’s universities, its culture and openness still garner great support in the Arab world.  Take another look at John Waterbury’s 2003 article in Foreign Affairs, “Hate Your Policies, Love Your Institutions.” It is as true now as it was eight years ago.  The sad fact is that the U.S. policies are widely perceived around the Arab world to be on the wrong side of history, and as history shifts so rapidly today in the streets of Cairo and Tunis we must take careful next steps.  The long wager on stability over reform is coming up empty.

In order to help re-set this relationship, the President needs the best possible advice.  The following distinguished Americans, from both the public and private sectors in our country, come to mind as people who would be particularly well qualified to serve the President here:  Thomas Pickering, Charles (Chas) Freeman, Morton Abramowitz, Peter Beinart, Wendy Chamberlin, John Esposito Shibley Telhami,  John Mearsheimer, Nicholas Kristof, William Quandt, Andrew Sullivan, Peter Bergen, William Rugh and Theodore Kattouf.  As the experts at State, the NSC and USAID gather to deliberate about next steps, the Department’s public diplomacy experts should have a seat at the table.

The President’s principal focus in his state of the Union address was not our country’s foreign policy.  However, his words on this subject hold forth great significance and the manner in which we now work to reset our relations with Egypt provides an opportunity to bring meaning to the President’s thoughts from Tuesday.



James Ketterer

James Ketterer is Dean of International Studies at Bard College and Director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program. He previously served as Egypt Country Director for AMIDEAST, based in Cairo and before that as Vice Chancellor for Policy & Planning and Deputy Provost at the State University of New York (SUNY). In 2007-2008 he served on the staff of the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education. He previously served as Director of the SUNY Center for International Development.

Ketterer has extensive experience in technical assistance for democratization projects, international education, legislative development, elections, and policy analysis – with a focus on Africa and the Middle East. He has won and overseen projects funded by USAID, the Department for International Development (UK), the World Bank and the US State Department. He served on the National Security Council staff at the White House, as a policy analyst at the New York State Senate, a project officer with the Center for Legislative Development at the University at Albany, and as an international election specialist for the United Nations, the African-American Institute, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He is currently a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has also held teaching positions in international politics at the New School for Social Research, Bard College, State University of New York at New Paltz, the University at Albany, Russell Sage College, and the College of Saint Rose.

Ketterer has lectured and written extensively on various issues for publications including the Washington Post, Middle East Report, the Washington Times, the Albany Times Union, and the Journal of Legislative Studies. He was a Boren National Security Educational Program Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and in Morocco, an International Graduate Rotary Scholar at the Bourguiba School of Languages in Tunisia, and studied Arabic at the King Fahd Advanced School of Translation in Morocco. He received his education at Johns Hopkins University, New York University and Fordham University.

Areas of focus: Public Diplomacy; Middle East; Africa; US Foreign Policy

Contributor to: Global Engagement