In a simpler, more reasonable world, the government of the United States would have enough leverage in Cairo to put an end to the Egyptian military’s brutal crackdown on its Muslim Brotherhood opponents. We are, after all, the longstanding patron of Egypt’s generals; they are among our best-financed clients. We are the world’s sole superpower; their country is a needy basket case. We’re supplying them with $1.5 billion in aid this year; they can certainly use the money.
Instead, our impotence as Egypt burns is the latest case study in a reality that U.S. statesmen should always keep in mind: Client governments are never as tractable as their patrons in far-off capitals expect, and a great power that thinks it’s buying influence is often buying its way into trouble instead.
This trouble can take a variety of forms. The most destructive is the longstanding tendency of client states to pull their patrons into needless wars. Sometimes the patron’s promise of support persuades the client to act recklessly, and then the patron ends up backing the recklessness because its own credibility is at stake. Sometimes the patron-client relationship just creates a closed circle of bellicose misjudgment. And sometimes the relationship inspires the patron to overestimate its client’s strategic importance and engage in an unwise or futile intervention.
Many of the 20th century’s crises were touched off or worsened by these kinds of great-power/client-state dynamics — between Russia and Serbia in 1914; between Stalin and Kim Il Sung in 1950 and Khrushchev and Castro in 1962; and between the U.S. and various South Vietnamese governments across our long Indochina debacle.
The problem is still with us today. The brush-fire war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, for instance, probably wouldn’t have happened if America’s patronage hadn’t made our Georgian allies overestimate their ability to engage in brinkmanship with Vladimir Putin. (Happily, John McCain’s half-cocked declaration that “we are all Georgians” was the closest we came to starting World War III on Tbilisi’s behalf.) And the 2003 Iraq invasion was shaped, in part, by perverse patron-client dynamics as well: It was both a continuation of Gulf War I, which was fought on behalf of our gulf-state clients, and an attempt to effectively replace those (highly problematic) allies with what various Bush-administration optimists hoped would be a new and very grateful client in the heart of the Middle East.
In Egypt today, the stakes are lower for the U.S., since we are unlikely to be dragged into a shooting war on the Egyptian military’s behalf. But that’s partly because we’ve given them enough weapons to do all the shooting for themselves. Which means our patronage has created a different kind of problem: Even absent an actual military footprint, we’ve been dragged permanently into Egypt’s domestic politics, where we’re seen — for understandable reasons as well as conspiratorial ones — as the real power behind whatever the state decides to do.
In the 1980s and 1990s, that seemed a price worth paying, since a bought-and-paid-for (and Israel-friendly) Egypt was preferable to either a hostile secular dictatorship in the style of Nasser’s regime or a hostile religious dictatorship in the style of post-revolutionary Iran. (Prerevolutionary Iran being another case, of course, where a U.S. patron-client relationship ended badly for all concerned.)
The events of Sept. 11 made the price seem considerably steeper, since the terrorist attacks were, in part, a case of client-state blowback. Al-Qaida’s mission and worldview were forged in Egypt’s prisons, and the 9/11 plot itself was spearheaded by a young Egyptian, Mohamed Atta, who made no distinction between his country’s rulers and their American patrons.
Still, given the post-9/11 situation, it was understandable that our aid kept flowing and our close relationship endured. And it was understandable, too, that the Obama White House would hesitate to upset the relationship in the last few years, with Egypt in the throes of what seemed as if it might be a democratic revolution.
Now, though, the calculus has to change. Egypt is rolling back into authoritarianism along a track that’s soaked in blood. The cycle of crackdown-radicalization, crackdown-radicalization is likely to get worse, the cost of being intimately tied to the military regime is getting higher, and the window for demonstrating that America’s favor really is conditional is closing fast.
Right now, the Obama administration is trapped by its client state the way that great-power patrons often are. Because our aid to Egypt is our most obvious leverage over its military, and because we can really only pull that lever once, Washington is afraid to follow through and do it.
But leverage can be lost through inaction as well. If we can’t cut the Egyptian military off amid this blood bath, we’re basically proving that we never, ever will.
Far better to act like the superpower we are, and make an end. It’s time, and past time, to let this client go.Ross Douthat writes for The New York Times.