It isn’t as simple as the big, bad US going in and mucking things up. When President Carter got president-for-life Sadat and Prime Minister Begin to sign the Camp David Accords, that was a pretty big deal. Preventing a future war between Israel and the biggest Arab states wasn’t just in the US interest, it was a compelling cause. So was keeping the sea lanes open through the Suez Canal. (In the good foreign policy tradition of realpolitik, we merged morality and prudence, exploiting a timely opportunity: Egypt agreed to our advances because they had lost significant Soviet aid and needed foreign funding to maintain their economy.)
When these relationships backfire, like Mubarak’s obvious reliance on thuggery to remain in power (which has both constant and episodic components to it), people look at the US alliance he has enjoyed and the benefits we accrue from Egyptian foreign policy cooperation, and sometimes assume conscious, unvarying and unqualified malevolence on the part of our government. Such judgments involve a basic empirical mistake, appraising policies that have become unsustainable, harmful or otherwise-counterproductive in a vacuum, disregarding the benefits of the equilibrium. Look at the Arab states where the US has had little or no relations, and they generally look worse than Egypt.
We fell into this situation, due in part to complacency and partly to lack of control over our non-democratic allies–which owes to their post-colonial sovereignty. In our ongoing Cold War with the Soviet Union, our adversary was supporting dictatorships as a matter of policy. There were cases in which our relationships with these dictators were simply unjustifiable. Our Cold War support for dictatorship in South Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan and Iraq, frankly, had horrifying consequences. Our association with the Shah of Iran led to one of the most-brutal and hated governments the region has known, and set the stage for the 1979 Iranian Revolution. But this were extreme cases that demonstrated the volatility of some post-colonial countries, not that we should never be involved with their governments. Our long engagement with Mubarak has clearly come back to haunt us, and I agree that the right is with the protesters in the street. But this is the fruits of a good deal that wasn’t morally-controversial at the time: Our sponsorship of dictators leads them to become more heavy-handed with the opposition over time, unhinging them.
Again, I am not trying to whitewash the associations of our government. Again, an alliance between one of the World’s oldest democracies and a callous dictator has deeply embarrassed us and probably undermined our foreign policy interests as well. But not only was this narrative unclear in September 1978, it didn’t apply then. Our crime is that our alliance with Mubarak allowed one of the Arab countries with the most potential to drift.