Famous events of American history will likely be invoked in tonight's debates between President Barack Obama and would be President Mitt Romney. I will take any odds that neither of them will invoke the U.S. Marine Corps excursion into Egypt of 1882. They should, it is a good topic for comparing and contrasting past United States foreign policy to present day practice and rhetoric.
In 1882 Egypt was not yet exactly a colony of Great Britain, which is a bit surprising. The British Empire of the time was the largest and most brutal the world had ever seen, and was still expanding. Being crushed under British boots was a way of life for about one-quarter of the world's population. Egypt was a great prize in the global competition between European powers, and the result had been a strange system called Dual Control. On paper Egypt was an autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire ruled by a local dictator, Ismail the Magnificent. But the real bosses were British and French: Major Baring and Monsieur de Blignieres.
The Egyptian government owed a lot of money, especially to French and British investors. It was as if, in return for its current holdings of U.S. bonds, China demanded the right to appoint one of its citizens to be Secretary of the Treasury or Chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Egyptian nationalists rebelled against foreign rule starting in September of 1881, and by June 1882 the nationalists had seized control of most of the nation. The British did what they did best back then: they attacked, starting at Alexandria and the Suez Canal, which had been opened in 1869 by the French, who constructed it with Egyptian slave labor.
The U.S. Navy was ordered to Alexandria in June 1882 to protect American citizens and their Consulate. Where the Navy goes, so go the Marines. On July 11 the British fleet started pouring 16,000 artillery shells into the city (bombing cities where civilians had not been evacuated would later by declared a war crime). Three days later 124 Marines and armed sailors from the Nipsic, led by Tony Waller, walked over the corpses to the American Consulate.
The Marines were congratulated for their help by the British army and press. They returned in September "in time for Waller to witness the victorious conclusion of the British offensive ... When Arab forces decapitated captured British Bengali cavalrymen and displayed their heads on lances, the British began summarily executing enemy captives. Years later, Waller would cite the British actions at Alexandria as justification for his own harsh treatment of enemy prisoners." [Honor in the Dust by Greg Jones, pages 34-35]
No wonder the typical Egyptian nationalist does not trust the British, French, Turks, or Americans. They probably know their own history a bit better than we do. For all the American propaganda about democracy and national self-determination, the United States did nothing while Egypt remained part of the British Empire from 1882 until 1953.
A lot of water has flown down the Nile since 1882. The U.S. government now arms the Egyptians and until recently supported the dictator Hosni Mubarak and his pro-Israel policies. The U.S. did not openly oppose (or support) the democracy movement that led to Mubarak's overthrow and the establishment of a (so-far) democratic government.
The Marines have not stormed in Egypt recently, but they did storm into nearby Yemen [See Obama Grabs Yemen].
Embassies and consulates are supposed to be inviolate under international law. The U.S. Marine Corps has traditionally guarded U.S. embassies abroad; there is nothing wrong with that. But the Marine Corps has a long history of being the brutal enforcers of American policy.
The best way to protect American embassies is to establish a foreign policy that is peaceful and non-interfering. People get mad at U.S. officials for because they are mistaken, but more often they get mad because they, or their country, has been mistreated.
Treat all people right and there is little need for battalions of Marines to protect American embassies. Getting all U.S. troops back to the United States and closing all our extraterritorial military basis would be a good start.