Sam Lahood, left, is seen in 2009, looking on as his father Ray is sworn in… (Transportation Department/…)
Help me, dear reader, solve a little puzzle. While I was moving freely around Cairo last week, Sam LaHood, the son of the U.S. Transportation secretary, was confined to U.S. diplomatic quarters. He had taken refuge there because he, along with 42 other foreign and Egyptian NGO activists, was to be put on trial by a still military-dominated Egyptian regime that receives more than $1.5 billion in U.S. aid. LaHood had tried to leave the country in January but had been turned back.
The activists' alleged offense is to have violated the proper registration procedures for a nongovernmental organization under a Mubarak-era law that makes it almost impossible to register a NGO properly. No one in their right mind believes this is anything but a pretext, or that the Egyptian judicial process is truly independent of a military and security apparatus that for decades has put itself beyond the law.
It took a pilgrimage to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi by Sen. John McCain(R-Ariz.), who chairs the International Republican Institute for which LaHood works, a visit by the head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and much huffing and puffing by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to arrive at the following deal. Court proceedings have been put off until April.
The local Egyptian activists must stay to face the music, but there are hints that the charges will be downgraded. The foreign activists — not just the Americans but also Germans, Serbs, a Norwegian and a Palestinian — have been allowed to leave the country.
Politico.com reports that "U.S. officials shelled out $5 million-plus in bail money to spring LaHood and the other NGO workers." A CNN interviewer asked LaHood, "Were you held hostage?"
"Well," replied LaHood, "That's the analogy our attorney used … it was a de facto detention."
Thus, to recap, the son of aU.S. Cabinetmember was held hostage by a regime to which the U.S. government gives more than $1.5 billion in aid.
His crime? Attempting to promote democracy. So why did Washington not react more strongly? Why was Uncle Sam standing up so gingerly for son Sam? Why was the Egyptian military tail wagging — not to say, taunting — the American dog? And why did McCain, that scourge of dictators, the man who recently told a Chinese vice foreign minister that "the Arab Spring is coming to China," behave like Puss in Boots when it came to dealing withEgypt'smilitary-dominated regime?
Compare two McCain tweets. On Vladimir Putin, last December: "Dear Vlad, the #Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you." On his visit to Egypt last month: "Constructive meeting today w/Field Marshal Tantawi, the head of #Egypt's military." All guns blazing for the Arab Spring — except at the heart of the Arab Spring.
So there's the little puzzle. I'm no expert on the Middle East, but I have asked some who are. Here are a few elements of their complex answers. First, McCain was holding back, with visibly clenched lips, till he got their guys out. Second, and more fundamentally, when asked by CNN (while the hostage crisis was still going on) whether the U.S. should cut its $1.5 billion aid to Egypt, McCain said no — and reminded the interviewer of the terms of the Camp David accords of 1978. In other words, the security of the state of Israel, which the U.S. regards as a vital moral and historical obligation — as I believe Europe also should — is held to require the continued collaboration of the Egyptian military.
Since the Camp David accords, and the subsequent Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, Washington has relied on Egypt as a vital subcontractor in its own compact to keep Israel safe — a compact reaffirmed by President Obama in his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. This Egyptian cornerstone of U.S. policy, which also involves safe passage through the Suez Canal and other American strategic interests, is seen as too important to risk at a time when Israel feels deeply unsettled by Islamists winning elections out of the Arab Spring, as they have done in Egypt. And, more immediately, when Israel feels so directly threatened by an almost nuclear-capable Iran that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is threatening to bomb it — in a U.S. presidential election year.
Talking of U.S. elections, the experts add one further detail. Much of the $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt (the rest of the grand total is more conventional economic assistance) comes straight back to American military suppliers. To factories like the General Dynamics one in Lima, Ohio, for example, where (wholly or partly U.S. government-funded) Egyptian army orders for tanks will help keep the production lines going despite Pentagon cutbacks. Risk those American jobs, in the crucial swing state of Ohio in an election year? You must be joking.
Whatever the exact mix of causes, in Egypt the U.S. has managed to tie its hands behind its back when it comes to doing what Americans have done so well in other countries, and what Sam LaHood was trying to do in Cairo: promote liberal democracy. In fact, one might almost argue that it's the real, down-home working of American democracy that hinders consistent, full-hearted American support for Arab democracy. If so, that is both tragic and shortsighted. The long-term interests of both Israel and the United States will not be served by being fainthearted or ambivalent in supporting what is still one of the most hopeful developments of our time.
Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing writer to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and professor of European studies at Oxford University. He is the author, most recently, of "Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name."