Washington Mulls Its Role In Egyptian Politics

Steve Inskeep talks to Leslie Gelb and Robert Kagan about U.S. strategy in Egypt. Kagan is a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution. Leslie Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Egypt's protests leave Americans with the awkward question of what to do. And we're going to hear two strong views of that question. Robert Kagan pushed for democratic change in Egypt even before the protests. He has advised Republicans, including presidential candidate John McCain, and is at the Brookings Institution.

Welcome to the program, sir.

Mr. ROBERT KAGAN (Brookings Institution): Thank you. Good to be here.

INSKEEP: And Leslie Gelb worries that Egypt's next rulers could be worse. He's with the Council on Foreign Relations. He's worked at the State and Defense Departments under Democratic presidents.

Welcome to the program once again, Leslie Gelb.

Mr. LESLIE GELB (Council on Foreign Relations): Good morning.

INSKEEP: And let me start with you, Leslie Gelb. What's the danger in this situation?

Mr. GELB: The danger in this situation is that we push the Egyptians to plow ahead without due reference to two things. One is that they do so in an orderly way to give themselves the best chance of achieving a real democracy, rather than - as Secretary Clinton said - a fake democracy. So to do everything from the streets and from riots and get the democracy, a very complicated business.

INSKEEP: Well, Robert Kagan, looking...

Mr. GELB: Secondly, if I may...

INSKEEP: OK. Go ahead.

Mr. GELB: Secondly, if I may, is we have to be attentive to American security interests in the area, as well. And for all President Mubarak's ills and for all his repressiveness at home, he has been a good ally and critical ally in the region. And we have to be attentive to that.

INSKEEP: He's been helpful to Israel, to say the least.

Robert Kagan, why is the risk worth it - the risk of pushing for change?

Mr. KAGAN: Well, first of all, let's not kid ourselves that what happens in Egypt is because we're pushing. I think if anything, right now, the Egyptian people - certainly the ones who are protesting - want to move faster than the U.S. administration does. So I don't think we're pushing them in a direction that they're not already going.

But the real question at this point is whatever Mubarak's virtues in the past, I think it's pretty clear that his role in Egypt is over and that the kind of orderly transition that Les correctly wants to see, I think, probably at this point cannot happen with Mubarak in office.

I don't think there's enough trust among the Egyptian people that he - who has, in fact, rigged election after election after election over the past decades -is now suddenly going to oversee a fair election. So I think unfortunately -because I think we also want as much orderly stability as we can - the flow of events in Egypt right now is against Mubarak. But that doesn't mean we can't have the kind of transition that Les is looking for.

INSKEEP: Is the fundamental interest here, gentlemen, the fundamental interest of the United States just to be on the winning side, no matter who the winner is?

Mr. KAGAN: Well, it certainly is better to be on the winning side if the winning side is the people of Egypt. We've made mistakes in the past in dealing with various dictators. I mean, among them, you know, you can criticize what we did or didn't do in the case of the shah of Iran. But one thing...

INSKEEP: In 1979.

Mr. KAGAN: ...we did succeed in doing was alienating the Iranian people for decades. And that turned out to be a big mistake. I think we need to - in our security interests - be on the side where Egypt is heading. And I think that means not trying to prop up some hated dictator now just because we think, wrongly, that that's where stability lies.

INSKEEP: Leslie Gelb.

Mr. GELB: I don't want to prop up that dictator, either. And I don't know any American who does. The issue is: How do you get from here to there? And at the one hand, people say, well, we have no influence whatsoever over what's going on in Egypt. And on the other, they criticize President Obama for not taking an even more supportive position on behalf of the protestors.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you both briefly, gentleman. As we look ahead to other countries, how should the United States approach protests in Jordan, Yemen and who knows were next? A few seconds from each of you, please. Should the U.S. be actively promoting democratic movements of this kind elsewhere in the Arab world?

Mr. GELB: The U.S. has traditionally asked these governments to do political and economic reforms. Almost all my life, that's been the stance of the U.S. government. We don't crack their knuckles to do it, because they benefit us in other ways, particularly in foreign policy. And here, again, we don't want to push them to the point of collapse so that what succeeds them is worse than they are. The same thing in Egypt.

INSKEEP: Robert Kagan, let me give you the last word here. You've got about 15 seconds.

Mr. KAGAN: Look, what we're witnessing in the Middle East right now is clearly the beginnings of a democratic revolution. It can go off the rails, or it could be a really transformative moment in history that his very beneficial to the United States. Not a question of us pushing them, but it is a question of us letting them move in this direction and not trying to staunch it in some illusory search for stability.

INSKEEP: Robert Kagan, author of "The Return of History and The End of Dreams," thank you.

Leslie Gelb writes for the Daily Beast and is author of "Power Rules."

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