Skip to main content

Does the U.S. matter any more in Egypt and Israel?

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
September 5, 2012 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attends a world conference on Afghanistan on July 8. She will visit Egypt and Israel next week.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attends a world conference on Afghanistan on July 8. She will visit Egypt and Israel next week.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron Miller: Secretary of state to visit Egypt and Israel as U.S. clout in those nations wanes
  • In Egypt, Clinton will be stuck between Islamists and anti-democracy generals, he writes
  • Miller: In Israel, domestic issues and Iran are bigger issues than America's concerns
  • Miller: The U.S. can't stop Israel if it plans to attack Iran nor influence Egypt's politics

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and served as a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Can America Have Another Great President?" Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Poor Hillary Clinton.

Later this week and next, she'll have the unenviable task of visiting Egypt and Israel at a time when America's capacity to influence the policies of both countries has fallen to new lows. And not even the secretary of state -- a veritable superstar of persuasion -- can charm America back into a position of influence.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

The public aspect of the visits should go smoothly enough. Nobody has a stake in upsetting an American secretary of state. Election year politics will diminish any unpleasantness in Israel, and even in Egypt, where the secretary should deliver some tough messages on the need to create and respect democratic principles, nobody really wants a fight.

But not so far beneath the surface, agendas diverge and challenges abound for an America that's no longer as admired, feared or respected as much as it needs to be in a region critical to its national interests. Here's a guide to some of them:

News: Clinton meets with Egypt's new president

Democratization: In Egypt, Clinton confronts so many challenges and minefields that regardless of what happens on this visit, the United States will be wrestling with that country's politics for years to come.

Israel's response to Egypt's election
Peres: Muslim Brotherhood must have plan

The good news, of course, is that for the first time in 40 years, Egypt has competitive politics; the bad news is that the most anti-democratic and exclusive forces in the country are the ones who are competing.

Clinton will find herself sandwiched between Islamists she doesn't trust and whose values aren't her own, and generals she believes have subverted Egypt's nascent democracy but are necessary to maintaining the peace treaty with Israel.

Navigating this course won't be easy. The meeting with Egypt's President Mohamed Morsy will carry great symbolism: the United States sanctioning the rise of political Islam in the Arab world's most important country. Although Clinton can rationalize she is meeting the democratically elected president of Egypt, Morsy is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose views on issues such as female genital mutilation, women's rights, peace with Israel and U.S. policies throughout the region diverge from hers, and America's.

The meeting with the generals won't be much easier. The Obama administration believes that the military -- not the Brotherhood -- has been mainly responsible for subverting the democratic process, and yet it's really hard-pressed to do much about it.

The $1.5 billion in military aid from the United States will most likely continue, lest America be without any leverage to affect matters in Egypt. The Israelis will press hard to ensure that assistance continues. After all, the U.S. gave it to the authoritarian Mubarak regime; can it really withhold it in a period when Egypt is supposedly democratizing? The generals have concluded that we need Egypt now more than Egypt needs us.

Peace process: Clinton's lack of leverage in Egypt will be mirrored in Israel. Israel's focus on domestic issues such as the military conscription law and election politics in the U.S. will ensure that the Obama administration will not seriously push the revival of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Even if talks were to resume, they wouldn't produce much. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, worried about Egypt and Iran, isn't prepared to make big decisions. And neither, for that matter, is a weak and constrained PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

Iran: Israel's worst fears about a nuclear Iran appear to be coming to pass. Sanctions are tougher than ever but apparently won't deter Iran should it persist in its campaign to acquire the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon. The P5-plus-1 (U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany) negotiations with Iran aren't producing a solution that stops weapons grade enrichment. The Iranian centrifuges continue to spin. And the Americans are in no mood to strike Iran or to give the Israelis a green or yellow light to strike.

No Israeli military strike is likely before year's end, certainly not before the U.S. elections. But after that, all bets are off. Neither Clinton nor the president would be able to restrain the Israelis should they decide they need to act.

News: Clinton to Egypt -- premature or the push Cairo needs?

Once upon a time, visits by secretaries of state to these countries really mattered. Not so much anymore. The Middle East has gotten a lot more complicated, and the locals act increasingly without reference to what America thinks or does. It may not be pretty to watch, but we better get used to it.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 19, 2014 -- Updated 1710 GMT (0110 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT