Friday, January 28, 2011

Getting What They Wanted

The Egyptian crisis highlights contradictions in our new, post-Bush policy in the Arab world, with an introduction courtesy of another unsurprising WikiLeak:

The U.S. ambassador in Cairo warned Washington to be less confrontational in its dealings with Egypt, toning down human rights pressure to avoid jeopardizing relations with the Middle East ally, dozens of U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks Friday showed. ...

The cables show that Egypt's human rights record remained a constant sticking point in relations between Washington and Cairo, threatening ties that have improved since President Barack Obama came to power.
Give me strength.

President Obama's backers clamored for foreign policy "realism" rather than the Bush-era democracy agenda. Obviously, relations with the Egyptian government improved once an administration clearly committed to government-to-government relations entered office.

So yes, calling for lowered talk on human rights was exactly what the new administration promised and what their supporters expected.

Which will work just fine, I suppose, if the Mubarak regime endures this bout of violence. Depending on whether Mubarak doesn't mind our comments about restraint.

But if the people in the streets win, we will face the dilemma of negotiating our way forward with people who saw us retreat from supporting basic human rights in favor of foreign policy realism. At that point, we'd best hope that our diplomats are very agile and that three decades of training Egypt's military pays off with their good will toward us that cushions and anger that we weren't obviously in the dissidents' corner during this crisis.

This diplomatic minefield will be made more difficult by President Obama's Cairo speech. Even though the context made it clear that under the Obama administration we weren't going to lift a finger to help democrats in the Arab world (can't go "imposing" anything alien to the locals, eh?), what if Egyptians heard these words differently:

I know -- I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere. (Applause.)

Now, there is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments -- provided they govern with respect for all their people.

This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they're out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. (Applause.) So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

So here we have Egyptians rising up--without our military "imposing" democracy--just as our president told them is the ideal. Democracy is good--it's just our role that "taints" the whole thing. So our president rejected the "NeoCon" agenda without rejecting their goal. Call President Obama a SortaCon, I guess.

I hope that the Cairo speech was soon forgotten by the Egyptian people. Otherwise, we might have some explaining to do.

Ah, isn't "restoring" our reputation abroad easy?

UPDATE: Let me clarify something. I hope the Obama administration can maneuver through this difficult crisis. My point is that foreign policy isn't easy, and requires many compromises with our ideals as well as pursuit of our ideals. The simplistic notion of many that being the "anti-Bush" was the key to foreign policy Nirvana is clearly shown to be false by the last month's events in the Arab world, with the Egypt Crisis dramatically driving that point home.

Right now we are cutting off some reviewing our (updated based on new information) aid to Egypt, I hear. We're trying not to alienate either side and I'm not sure whether we can be sort of for both sides. In a perfect world, we get along with whoever wins and can push whoever wins toward real democracy.

"Stability" isn't always what it is cracked up to be--nor as stable as it appears.

UPDATE: One more thing about the difficulty of playing both sides. I hope our intelligence is quickly being analyzed to figure out what is going on in the streets of Egypt. If this is clearly a Moslem Brotherhood led uprising, we should go all in to support the Mubarak regime, at the price of pushing them for immediate, real, and visible reforms once the streets are cleared. If we think the Mubarak regime is going to topple, we should be more clearly on the side of democracy. Playing both sides is best but I don't know if we have the capability of doing so. I wish the Bush agenda of pushing Egypt toward reform and real democracy hadn't been derailed (in fairness to President Obama, this began in the second term of the Bush administration--under intense pressure from the "realists" mind you, but he did change course). Perhaps even slow but real progress forward would have eased some of the pressure that has just exploded.

Wish the Obama administration luck on this. It is too late to wonder what might have been had we acted differently the last 5 years. We have what we have.

We all have a stake in coming out on the winning side. I won't pretend to know who that will be. Good luck, Mr. President. Forget solar panel subsidy issues. This is why you get paid the big bucks.

UPDATE: The Egyptian government placed its bets on a military not terribly good at combat but loyal because of its favored position. The people on the streets called that bet. We'll see who has the high cards.