Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Democracy in Egypt and the Middle East

What you are hearing from Washington insiders regarding the uprising, or revolution, in Egypt is that Pres. Obama is in a very tough spot.  Republicans are surprisingly supportive of this view and are standing behind the president as he tries to figure out what to do.  It's tricky because we've been supporting, through billions of dollars in aid, Mubarak for decades, this despite the fact that he is an undemocratic autocrat who excludes his people from legitimate public debate and involvement.  But the US is okay with that because he has been friendly with Israel, he has been moderate in keeping fundamentalism at bay in Egypt, and the country has been stable under his rule.

This is the classic foreign policy realism point of view.  Realism is not concerned with right or wrong, moral or immoral, and the like.  Realism is concerned with who has power and how does that effect me?  The paramount concern for a foreign policy realist is one's own security and self-interest.  From the realist's point of view, Mubarak has been perfectly acceptable.  The idea of a revolution in Egypt, with the possibility of chaos or fundamentalism taking hold as a counter-weight to the possibility of real democracy taking hold, is a risk probably not worth taking.  So the establishment is treading very carefully, not really sure what to do about it.  Of course a stable democracy is the very best thing for America's self-interest, but the cost/benefit analysis is tricky.  This is why the Obama administration is making wishy-washy statements and being blamed for being one step behind the situation, and why Republicans are supportive.

And it's all wrong.

America's self-interest is second to the inherent right of all people to live under conditions of democracy, peace, and human rights.  This is called foreign policy idealism, that our foreign policy is led by our internal philosophies, and America was founded on the ideals of freedom, democracy, and human rights (well, we got there eventually, anyway).  These are, for the most part, peaceful demonstrations of people who are throwing off an oppressive dictator and they should have nothing but our full support, and should have had it from the beginning.  The same is true of the recent protests in Tunisia, Iran, Jordan, and Yemen.

"Stability in lieu of freedom," as a recent Wall Street Journal editorial stated, was the long-time realist approach to the Middle East, but that is changing now.  Even the realists are seeing some value in a democratic and free Egypt.  In this case, the realists are on the wrong side of history, flat-footed as they realize that the old conventional wisdom that democracy could not take root naturally in the Middle East was nothing more than haughty American exceptionalism at its worst.  The Bush Doctrine of spreading democracy through war has been trounced and we now realize, more than ever before, that peaceful democracy and Islam are not mutually exclusive.

I'm not saying that Pres. Obama's famous Cairo Speech prompted this organic revolution, but as has been noted, the president put himself in the best position possible to support it when he said these words: "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."

Pres. Obama has not always backed those words with concrete actions, and he has been slow to react correctly to the political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa, but he at least staked out the correct amount of foreign policy idealism and gave America the flexibility to reject a stable Middle Eastern dictator when the people chose to overthrow him.

For too long America has supported dictators in the Middle East, even Saddam Hussein at one time, in the name of foreign policy realism, and it has left us weaker and more vulnerable, and morally bankrupt.  It is now time for America to support democracy and human-rights in the name of foreign policy idealism.  Next stop, by the way, must be Palestine.


peter said...

You're right, America should support democracy and freedom any where it is trying to take root...and should advocate for that change. Particularly when the instigation for change comes from within the country. I appreciate that Mitt Romney has taken this course in his public statements.

As for the Palestinians and the Iraelis...what is your stance specifically? Do you think that a two-state solution could really work or has this conflict gone so far that there is too little trust and too much ideology?


Jacob S. said...

My personal views are that a two state solution would work, but no one really knows. But more importantly, I think it is the only thing that could work. Nothing short of it could possibly settle the dispute. If a two state solution doesn't work, then nothing will. But what we know is that the current situation is completely untenable. The blockade is a human rights tragedy and is grinding the Palestinians down to nothing. All it accomplishes is forcing Palestinians into poverty and hopelessness, and therefore violence. What do you think?

peter said...

I agree that something has to change. I think a two state solution would solve many problems and is the best chance for peace, but it seems that neither side is willing to give in at all to make it happen. I understand Israel's concerns about Hamas and being a target of distruction for Islamic nations. They were suffering from terrorist attacks and wanted them stopped. However, I think that Isreal has also been acting as a bully in many ways and though they give lip service to a two state solution they really just want the Palestinians to up and leave. At this point Isreal has the upper hand and though their outward reason for the blockade is to cut off Hamas (understandable) I wonder if their tactics of continued settlement and blockade are also to just get rid of Palestine.

I think Isreal would benefit a lot from peace with their neighbors and a permanent two state solution would go a long way to helping that.

I think that both sides are culpable for the current situation. But assigning blame doesn't help anyone. The question is, can they work it out. I don't think anything is going to work unless Isreal is willing to come to the table and make concessions, which at this point doesn't seem likely. They've got Palestine under their thumb and it would seem to be pretty smart to let up and work to build a stable government there. Oppression, as you point out, will only lead to violence.

Obviously I am not a scholar on the middle east and I don't claim to be one. So go ahead and point out to me where I am wrong. You are right, though, that the current human rights situation in Palestine is unacceptable.

I want it to work out, I want them to find peace, but Isreal has to pull back and Palestine needs to realize that it's not going to get rid of Isreal. I don't know if it's possible.


Jacob S. said...

I don't think you are wrong about any of that, it's right on. And it highlights the dilemma that no one else is able to work out. How do you convince Israel that it is safer to give Palestinians more freedom, even if that freedom means it freely elects Hamas political leaders, than if it continues its oppression?

Which ties back nicely to Egypt. What if Egypt throws off Mubarak, which is a near certainty now, and through popular election gives power to the Muslim Brotherhood (who are Islamists but, from what I've read, somewhat more moderate than others in the region)? Is that a net win? On the one hand the people have more autonomy and say in their government, but on the other hand they elect people America doesn't necessarily like. It may be hard for America and Israel to accept these realities, but we should support democracy anyway.

peter said...

Watching Iran this week does show some valid concerns over what could happen in Egypt. Under the Shah, Iran had a fairly stable, fairly open and liberal government...particularly in regards to women's rights. Then the people overthrew the Shah and the Islamic leaders stepped into the aftermath and were elected as rulers. They took that power and have turned Iran into an Islamic state where protests against the government are met with executions and women have no rights.

At the time, the people in Iran thought that they were moving to a better society, but they got more than they bargained for and the current regime is much worse from a human rights standpoint. I'd say that the world can't just sit back and hope that Egypt gets things right, but provide guidance to that end.