Behind Kiss of Death -- White House Takes Aim at Mubarak’s Nuclear Program

 Behind Kiss of Death -- White House Takes Aim at Mubarak’s Nuclear Program

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For Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the apparent kiss of death from the White House could add another name to the roll call of erstwhile allies who ran afoul of Washington's fickle agenda. The list includes the likes of Saddam Hussein, Suharto, Ferdinand Marcos, Manuel Noriega, the Shah of Iran and Ngo Dinh Diem.

Where and when exactly did Hosni Mubarak go wrong in American eyes?

From the moment that Mubarak saw his mentor, Anwar Sadat, gunned down in 1981 at a military parade by soldiers affiliated with the Brotherhood, the astute politician has played ball with the United States and Israel.

A fast learner, he kept his head low, enforced peace with Israel, curbed overzealous Palestinians, suppressed Muslim anger against Coptic Christians, and humbly took billions in U.S. aid.

Mubarak’s regime could make these extraordinary and often humiliating compromises with Egypt's historic foes because of the legacy of Sadat, the only Arab leader to soundly whip the Israelis on the battlefield.

The Yom Kippur War of 1973 fell short of total victory for the Egyptian side only because of the threat of U.S. intervention and Gen. Ariel Sharon's decision to counterattack during the Washington-brokered ceasefire. Despite repeated demands by young Egyptian officers for a second Yom Kippur assault against an impudent foe, Mubarak kept the peace as stipulated in the Camp David Accords, Sadat's other great achievement.

For Mubarak’s inner circle, intense political pressures arose from Israel's relentless expansion of settlements on Palestinian territory and the two American-led invasions of Iraq, whose Baathist ideology was based on the pan-Arab nationalism of Egypt's first president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The West's ideal of democracy has always been curtailed in the Mideast by its need for compliant regimes that could ensure the export of cheap petroleum via Western oil companies.

Another major problem for democratic transition can be summarized as: Democracy for whom, left-leaning Arab nationalists or conservative Islamicists?

Instead of fostering parliamentary power sharing, Britain, the U.S. and Israel have promoted a divide-and-rule policy, playing one side against the other. A strong democracy in the Middle East, with public control over national energy resources, would be quite costly for the West. Empty talk, along with aid to dictatorships, is therefore a lot cheaper.

Hopes for a Western-style parliamentary system now rests on Tunisia. Under the Ben Ali regime, left-leaning unions were tolerated to a large extent as a bulwark against Islamic extremists, providing a basis of hope for Tunisian democracy.

In Egypt with its growing informal economy and large non-industrial sector, however, radicalized lower middle-class youths have tended to join the Brotherhood.

In Lebanon, Victory for the Bold

Mubarak's biggest irritant has been the Brotherhood, domestic proponents of shariah law and ally of the confrontation-oriented Hamas and Hezbollah. His strident opposition to Iran and its client groups was seen as a huge positive for continued American financial aid to Egypt, while the West brushed his deep misgivings over civilian casualties in Iraq aside. Although he is known to show less emotion than the Sphinx, Mubarak finally reached a breaking point.

The Second Lebanon War of 2006 was the watershed event. Mubarak’s initial instinct was to lambaste Hezbollah, and its fiery leader, Mullah Hassan Nasrullah, for "adventurism that does not serve Arab interests." He criticized Mullah Nasrullah for sectarianism that encourages "the Shiites to be loyal to Iran and not to the countries they are living in."

As the Israeli air strikes took their toll on civilian lives, the Egyptian public, including military officers, demanded military mobilization against Israel. Mubarak pulled in the reins: "Those who urge Egypt to go to war to defend Lebanon or Hezbollah are not aware that the time of exterior adventures is over." So much for Sadat.

Without any assistance from the Arab world's most powerful army, Hezbollah held its lines and rained rockets down on Israeli settlements to impose a humiliating draw against the aggressors.

Mullah Nasrullah could rightfully claim the mantle of Sadat as the Arab people's leading warrior, relegating Mubarak to the role of a pretender. Glory does not arise from moderation.

The Nuclear Option

Short of all-out war, the sole means left for Egypt to restrain Israel from launching attacks on Arab territories is nuclear deterrence. The deep shame from failing to intervene in Lebanon prompted Mubarak's campaign to develop a nuclear capability and an arsenal of ballistic missiles.

Repeated calls by Egypt and Iran for a "nuclear-free Mideast" since 1974 failed to sway Tel Aviv to reduce its strategic arsenal. Mohamed ElBaradei, a New York University-educated lawyer, whose father was a pro-Western opponent of Nasser, has been the leading voice pushing for nuclear disarmament by Iran and Israel. His record as a bureaucrat at the International Atomic energy Agency, where he was director until 2009, charitably put, is one of idealism rather than practical results.

Most of Israel's missiles remain targeted on Egypt's densely populated cities, a constant threat that justifies Cairo's drive for deterrence. The Egyptian atomic energy program has its roots in the Nasser era, when a small Russian reactor was installed for research purposes.

Just before his assassination in 1981, Sadat brought Egypt into the Non-Proliferation Treaty on a limited basis, leaving the possibility for independent fuel reprocessing. Egyptian nuclear scientists made slow progress, but their work was severely constricted without any operational reactors.

The political fallout from the Lebanon War finally kick-started a determined drive for nuclear power. At a September 2006 conference of the ruling National Democratic Party, the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, called for Egypt to pursue a nuclear program.

By the following spring, Energy Minister Hassan Younis announced plans to build 10 nuclear plants. Plans for at least one of those facilities was for a heavy-water plant that could produce raw material for weapons-grade fuel.

Since then, the Mubarak government has signed initial accords for plant construction and equipment with China and Russia—the two other countries, along with Egypt, denounced by Hillary Clinton for "human-rights violations."

The U.S. corporation, Bechtel, and the South Korean nuclear authority also sought contracts, perhaps to glean inside information on behalf of Western intelligence agencies.

Towards a Trinity of Deterrence

In 2009, Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit outlined the Arab strategic predicament, saying that Israel and Iran are both nuclear players, "one on the Mediterranean and the other on the Gulf . . . . You have a land mass of Arab countries and Arab people that do not feel at ease in that setting."

A strategic trinity of deterrence between Israel, Iran and Egypt is now the only means of maintaining secure borders between the three blocs. The possibility of nuclear terrorism is remote, considering the vital importance of nuclear controls for each side.

For the rest of the world, the regional deterrence triangle would prevent any local exchange of fire from engulfing the great powers—the U.S., Russia and China—in a worldwide nuclear conflagration.

Strict limits on the number and size of warheads, the scale of missile forces, authorized targets and no-strike zones, and pacts against first-strike launches could hold nuclear arsenals to the bare minimum needed to prevent invasions or preemptive attacks. The larger danger comes from the absence of such a regional structure and system of nuclear controls.

Belatedly, in 2008, the U.S. government for the first time listed Israel as an undeclared nuclear state in a list drafted by Rose Gottemoeller, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. This late recognition shows that Washington lacks a real politik approach to regional deterrence, while it stubbornly clings to an eroding superpower status.

The Obama-Kissinger proposal for total nuclear disarmament, unveiled in 2009 in time for the Nobel Peace Prize, might have been feasible at the end of the Cold War, but not today in a multipolar world of hardball geopolitics.

Whatever its no-nukes rhetoric, Washington is powerless to disarm Tel Aviv's nuclear arsenal. Also, the U.S. will not commit to a nuclear umbrella over Egypt or the rest of the Arab world in event of an Israeli invasion.

By adopting a nuclear option, the Mubarak regime risked bringing on covert destabilization and regime change, as happened to Pervez Musharraf, who refused to surrender Pakistan's so-called "Islamic bomb."

With its latest tilt in Mideast policy, Washington is inflaming the Brotherhood's vendetta with the Egyptian strongman. In this light, the Wikileaks release of the Palestinian papers can be seen as political blackmail and incitement directed not only against Mahmoud Abbas, but also against his main benefactor, Mubarak.

As for the legacy of Hosni Mubarak, his mistake—possibly fatal—was his long reluctance to establish a full-fledged nuclear program. Instead of conceding to American, European and Israeli pressures, Egypt could have possessed the nuclear capability to prevent the horrific air strikes against Gaza in 2008-09.

The Egyptian people, the Arab world and international community respect the real power that can enforce peace, not mere wishes and words about peace. Right or wrong, great leaders are judged by their actions and not by their compromises.

Mubarak's main enemy today is not the hostility of rioters, the Israeli war machine or American demands for obedience—it is lost time, the ticking down of every precious second. The ancient pharaohs, even the obscure ones, could rest easy knowing their images would be preserved in stone, but for modern-day presidents the sands are running out.

Yoichi Shimatsu, a former associate editor of Pacific News Service, is a Hong Kong-based journalist, covered the rise of Islamic militancy in the North African Magreb region for the Japan Times Weekly.