Brooks: Correct Correlations
By David Brooks, Staff Columnist
Published on Thursday, September 20, 2012
Recently, I was reading a portion of Steve Coll’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Ghost Wars,” which details the attack on the U.S. embassy in Islamabad on Nov. 21, 1979. For a moment, I felt as though I was reading a description of the recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11. The two attacks in many ways resemble one another. In 1979, no one had expected that the students who stormed the U.S. Embassy would explode into the radical groups that fueled the Afghan insurgency, exported terrorism and started the madrassas that would train the militants we are fighting today. However, it is the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo and not the attack on the consulate in Benghazi that are most troubling.
As more details of the attack in Libya became public, it became increasingly apparent that this was more than just a group of angry rioters. People don’t take to the streets to begin protesting at 10 at night, and the use of antiaircraft guns with coordinated rocket fire evidence the fact that this attack was thoroughly premeditated.
This point is important because the knee-jerk reaction is to blame Islam, Libya, YouTube videos or the intervention. Lost amid the guesswork of the first days was the fact that Libyans died trying to protect the U.S. ambassador and the embassy workers. Unlike in Egypt, the government in Tripoli immediately expressed condolences and condemned the killings, and as many as 10 Libyans have been reported killed as a result of their attempts to defend the consulate. Meanwhile, local forces have arrested 50 people in connection with the attacks, and cooperation between the United States and Libya should prove promising in targeting these insurgents.
The pictures coming from groups carrying signs showing solidarity with the United States and remorse for the killings highlight an important fact — the United States enjoys a 90 percent favorability rating in Libya. Qaddafi’s forces would have gladly razed Benghazi if not for NATO intervention, and the locals know this. The attack in Benghazi, while tragic, is representative of an asymmetric attack by a small group of insurgents and does not imply countrywide strategic challenges.
It’s not the events in Libya that mirror the embassy burning in Pakistan, but instead those in Egypt, and Egypt is where our worry and focus should be. As was later revealed, an extremist group within the president’s political party launched the attack in Pakistan. The U.S. had asked Pakistan for help only for that call to go unanswered. Similarly in Egypt, the president’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, called for the protests against the embassy. After people began scaling the walls, the United States asked for Egyptian security to remove the intruders. It took five hours for the government to finally do so. This marked the fourth time the U.S. embassy had been assaulted with a meager response from Egyptian police. It took a full 24 hours before Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi issued a tepid response. Only after a phone call from President Barack Obama did Morsi take a slightly harsher stance against the attacks.
Fortunately, the events in Egypt, although troubling, are not nearly as worrisome as the situation in Pakistan. After over 40 years, Pakistan still believes that it can court extremist movements for strategic depth while ignoring the dire consequences to its population. Morsi’s balancing act appears more oriented toward his own security than any sort of transnational intentions. The new government in Egypt must be made to see that securing American support requires more than tempering sensibilities. In the past, $2 billion of aid was enough to lull Egypt into keeping a handle on international terrorism and maintaining peaceful relations with Israel. We also mistakenly believed that aid would buy us an active ally in Pakistan. Currently, over half of Egypt’s population is made up of people under age 25, nearly half of whom are jobless. This young and restless population is prime recruiting ground for terrorism.
However, a new government offers a new opportunity to direct our aid. The United States should use its $1 billion debt forgiveness package to Egypt to place political pressure on Morsi. U.S. aid should flow while being tied to reforms of Egypt’s spending. Finally, the United States should support the proposed International Monetary Fund loan to Egypt, provided certain economic reforms are met.
Fledgling democracies are a messy business. But insurgent attacks are nothing new, and we are experienced in targeting groups like the one in Libya. Then again, the stirrings of a nascent extremist movement aren’t new either. They are, however, much more dangerous.