March 10, 2011 | Quote

The Shadow of the Iraq War Isn’t as Long as Applebaum Claims

Co-Authored with Robert Kagan

Our friend Anne Applebaum makes a bizarre assertion in her latest blog post. She asks rhetorically, “Why do Egyptian democrats fear they will be stigmatized by U.S. aid?” And the answer she gives is the Iraq war.

Let's start with the fact that Egyptians do not fear they will be stigmatized by U.S. aid. The major complaint from Egyptian opposition groups during the last two years was that the Obama administration significantly reduced the democracy assistance the United States had been providing. Far from being concerned about any stigma attached to U.S. aid, they wanted more of it.

Right now, Egyptians want and need as much assistance from the United States and Europe to aid their economy as possible. Some of that may be direct aid, some of it may be foreign investment, income from tourism, and other means for helping the Egyptian economy through the coming difficult democratic transition. We have not heard of any Egyptian leader, whether in the opposition or in the government, saying they do not want American aid in all these many forms. The big message that Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) brought back from their recent visit to Cairo was that the Egyptian people want U.S. economic help.

As to the reasons why Egyptians may take a dim view of the United States, we are sure that the Iraq war is not at the head of the list.

In the top spot would be three decades of U.S. support for the Mubarak dictatorship. Second place would probably go to U.S. support for Israel. The Iraq War is certainly on the list. But, on the other hand, Iraq has presented a mixed picture. On the one hand, yes, the horrendous execution of the war, the scenes from Abu Ghraib, the sectarian strife — all these certainly have damaged the U.S. reputation in Egypt and elsewhere. However, and this was the point Charles Krauthammer was making, the fact that Iraqis were holding repeated elections while Egyptians were being held in a repressive political strangulation may have helped convince Egyptians and others around the region that they, too, could have free elections. We can't say how much of a role this played, and it would be simplistic to suggest that elections in Iraq produced a demand for democracy in Egypt.

But it would not be as simplistic as saying that “Egyptian democrats fear they will be stigmatized by U.S. aid” because of the Iraq war. What we are witnessing in the Middle East is a refutation of those who have argued that the very cause of democracy in the region was damaged by the Iraq War. It turns out the Arab peoples seek democracy regardless of how they feel about the United States.