By William Pfaff
The interview given to The New York Times by the new president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, on the eve of his trip to New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting, was notable for its moderation, but more than that, for its calm and well-founded—and if you will, friendly—advice to the United States about its relations with Egypt and the Middle East.
As a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, President Morsi has been looked upon in Washington with some apprehension, suspected of supplying a modest and accommodating facade for a movement considered to be committed by origins and tradition to a fundamentalist and intolerant version of Islam.
Washington was nevertheless happy to see his skillful and decisive handling of the seeming threat by the Egyptian military to re-establish the domination of Egypt’s affairs they have held since 1952, when Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser and his group of “Free Officers” deposed the monarchy, resulting eventually in nationalization of the Suez Canal and withdrawal of British forces from Egypt.
President Morsi says that it is up to the United States to repair its relations with the Arab world, and specifically with Egypt and Israel. The treaty signed by those two countries in 1979, following a dramatic trip to Israel by President Anwar el-Sadat, Nasser’s successor, has provided the foundation for a fragile peace between those two countries, supported by large American payments to both. These payments rank first and second in size of all American subsidies to foreign countries.
Mr. Morsi said what had not been said before, that if the United States wishes Egypt to continue to respect this Camp David agreement, made 34 years ago, it must honor its own simultaneous commitment to Palestinian self-rule—which, because of Israeli objections, the U.S. has never been willing to do (for reason of domestic politics). He said, “As long as peace and justice are not fulfilled for the Palestinians, the treaty remains unfulfilled.” He added that the United States bears “a special responsibility” because it both sponsored and signed the Camp David agreements.
He said Egypt would not be hostile to the West, but that it would not be as compliant as it was under his predecessor, Gen. Hosni Mubarak. He added that “Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region,” referring to America’s implicit support for Israeli expansion into territories legally Palestinian, and its backing of dictatorial Arab governments.
Asked if he considered the United States an ally of Egypt’s, he deliberately replied in the words President Obama had used earlier when complaining that Egypt was not acting quickly enough to block popular protests against the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. (Mr. Obama said on television that he did not at that moment consider Egypt an ally.)
Mr. Morsi said that it “depends on your definition of ally,” which, according to the Times, he did “with a smile and in English.” He added that the two countries were undoubtedly “real friends.” (Mr. Morsi received a doctorate in science at the University of Southern California in the 1980s.)
What the Egyptian president was really doing in this interview was reclaiming Egypt’s sovereignty in world affairs, which it has not fully possessed since becoming a client and “ally” of the United States in 1978. As with some other Arab countries, its leaders and its national sovereignty have “been purchased with American taxpayer money,” and in return, the U.S. has received complaisance—and resentment, or hatred. (“Why do they hate us so?” Now you know.)
Whether the Egyptian president will succeed remains to be discovered. It depends on whether the United States can abandon its habitual assumption that the interests of other nations are subordinate to American interests. The customary recourse of nations with divergent interests is to seek accommodation or reconciliation in negotiations. This rests on mutual respect for national sovereignty.
However, this practice was badly damaged during the Cold War because Leninism condemned state sovereignty and made the claim that Marxism was a doctrine of universal validity, while liberal and capitalist systems usurped the peoples’ sovereignty. Hence the Soviet Union and the Communist International acknowledged no limit on their own actions, which were held to “objectively” serve humanity’s interest even when “preventive” or preemptive aggressive war was concerned (as in the cases of Finland and Poland in 1939). Then and later, they adhered to a policy justifying universal subversion of non-Communist states (at least in theory; the practice was generally beyond their reach).
The United States learned too well from its Cold War enemies. After 9/11, under George W. Bush, the U.S. adopted policies of preemptive war and disregard for national sovereignties, which continue today under President Obama, in its programmed assassinations by means of drones and assassination teams, its kidnappings, renditions and torture, all in defiance of international law and with indifference towards the national sovereignties of the countries involved, including allies.
The last was attested to earlier this September by Italy’s highest criminal court’s validation of the convictions in absentia of 23 American CIA agents for kidnapping a Muslim cleric in Milan, and their secret rendition of him to Egypt in order to be tortured.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.