Are US interests really at stake in Egypt and Syria?

I was participating in an exchange on an email listserv the other day, and one of the participants — Brendan Green, a visiting professor at the LBJ School at the University of Texas — made an intriguing observation.


With his permission, I reproduce a slightly edited version here:

“Pre-2011, if you said that Mubarak would fall, that Egypt would experience a mass political mobilization that destroyed its political order several times over, that the streets of Cairo would run red with blood; that 100,000 would die in Syria, that the Levant would be aflame; that the entire region would start to conduct much of its politics on sectarian grounds, and that there would be no end in sight, I think most people would have told you the proposed situation would be disastrous for American interests. Certainly it would be disastrous for American influence in the region. And yet, are we really worse off that we were in 2010? By what metric?”

Green also argued that a similar principle applied in reverse-that anti-Americanism in the region depended less on our specific actions and more on the mere fact of American size and prominence, which made us a useful foil for jihadi ideologists no matter what U.S. policy actually is. In other words: we’re damned if we do a lot in the region and damned if we don’t. And then he concluded:

“At best, it appears like we are arguing over whether a nickel of American policy is going to buy us four or six cents worth of American interests. To me, the most compelling arguments for or against our policy are moral arguments. There seems to be an excellent case that shooting your citizens is appalling and we shouldn’t give money to those who appall us, at least not without an excellent reason. There also seems to be an excellent case that other people’s problems are none of our business, and that we should simply write “Hic Dragones” on this part of the map while investing heavily in hydraulic fracking and other sources of energy independence. But those sort of arguments seem off limits in the mainstream foreign policy community.”

Though I have some reservations about Green’s second point — i.e., there is a lot of survey evidence suggesting that “what we do” does have a big impact on perceptions of the United States, especially in the Middle East — I thought his basic comment was brilliant. If something as momentous, turbulent, and bloody as the “Arab Spring” can erupt and fester for several years, and yet have hardly any observable impact on the life expectancy or economic well-being of the overwhelming majority of Americans, what does that tell you about the true scope of “vital U.S. interests?” 

Green’s closing comment is also well-worth pondering: if genuine “vital interests” (as opposed to our assorted preferences and discretionary desiderata) are few in number, why do so few people in the foreign policy establishment see it this way? Could it be that endlessly expanding the sphere of “vital interests” is just a good way for ambitious policy wonks to give themselves something to do?

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where he served as academic dean from 2002-2006. He has been a resident associate of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, and he has also been a consultant for the Institute of Defense Analyses, the Center for Naval Analyses, and Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

©: Foreign Policy 2013