Thinking about Egypt

We were thinking about it yesterday in more theoretical terms, about what makes a revolution and the act of rebellion legitimate and humane – true to the liberating spirit that animates it – and how revolutions betray themselves. To think about Egypt more practically is to recognize the social factors in Egypt that make the dangers of that betrayal greater than proponents of democracy, and of legitimate American interests, too, might like.

The experts are all over television and published media now. They are the scholars and think tank analysts of the Middle East, the country experts, ex and current diplomats and State Department hands. Their analysis, their presentation of the various factors at play, does not significantly change. There is poverty, youth, desperation, Islam, Israel, the opportunity Mubarak sacrificed over thirty years to lead Egypt into modernity rather than merely, first, commit himself to avoiding Sadat’s fate, and then, like all despots, to accumulating power and wealth. All the analysts undoubtedly have a point of view beyond and emergent from their analysis. For some, the analysis, for the more informed consideration of all of us, is primary. For others, the tendentious point of view, which skews the analysis, should be obvious to all but those already eager to embrace it. Then, of course, there are the countless voices, not inexpert at opining, who are a map of the tendentious.

One facile, obligatory opinion dump was Alex Pareene’s post at Salon: “America’s narcissism taints Egypt coverage.”

America doesn’t really understand how to respond to a revolution. The demonstrations in Egypt have nothing to do with Tea Parties or neoconservatives or Twitter or Facebook or Fox News. But don’t tell Americans!

Pareene’s condescensions careen all over the place, but their one consistent theme is that – as he offers a predictable display of self-involved self-laceration that is all about us – is that it is not all and always about us. Thanks, Alex.

More common, as President Obama walks that “fine line,” that “tightrope,” while sitting on that “fence” of shrewd, minimally-optioned caution or pusillanimous betrayal – of democratic ideals or loyalty to an ally, all depending on your side of the fence – are the condemnations of the President for not quickly and decisively choosing what side he is going to come down on. For now, GOP leaders are expressing support for Obama’s approach. That’s nice. Among the bigger name players, I’m betting on Gingrich to break first. However, lesser incendiary lights have already flashed their partisan glare.

John Bolton and Dick Morris both frame the administration’s cautious response, including expressed understanding for the democratic yearnings of Egyptians, as a careless invitation to a Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Egypt – as if the U.S. could or should attempt to influence events. Here is Morris, always in a race to the bottom of any heap:

In the 1950s, the accusation “who lost China” resonated throughout American politics and led to the defeat of the Democratic Party in the presidential elections of 1952. Unless President Obama reverses field and strongly opposes letting the Muslim brotherhood take over Egypt, he will be hit with the modern equivalent of the 1952 question: Who Lost Egypt?

The Iranian government is waiting for Egypt to fall into its lap. The Muslim Brotherhood, dominated by Iranian Islamic fundamentalism, will doubtless emerge as the winner should the government of Egypt fall. The Obama Administration, in failing to throw its weight against an Islamic takeover, is guilty of the same mistake that led President Carter to fail to support the Shah, opening the door for the Ayatollah Khomeini to take over Iran.

Someone has actually managed to squeeze in below Morris (a notable achievement) by working the same incipient meme even more crudely and tendentiously. Daniel Greenfield, at the enticingly titled if overcooked Sultan Knish blog, offers this objective analysis:

Obama Loses the Middle East

It’s no coincidence that major revolutions against Western backed governments have occurred under weak American presidents. The Iranian revolution against the Shah happened on Jimmy Carter’s watch. The current violence in Tunisia and Egypt is taking place under Obama. And the timing is quite interesting. Revolts which coincided with a new opposition congress almost suggest that they were scheduled for a time when Obama would be at his politically weakest.

Additionally the 2010 defeats would have indicated to the Iranian regime that they might only have a 2 year window in which to act before Obama is replaced by an unknown, but probably more conservative politician. A “Now or Never” moment. The Iranian Revolution might never have happened under Reagan. But Carter’s weakness, left wing politics and contempt for the very notion of defending American interests made it possible. Similarly despite attempts by some Bush advisers to take credit for Tunisia and Egypt, it is unlikely that they would have taken place on Bush’s watch. Not because the Bush administration was so omnipotent, but because it had regional credibility. The general perception was that the Bush Administration was on alert and supportive of allies. That is not at all the regional perception of the Obama Administration which doesn’t seem to know what an ally is.

Obama’s mistreatment of the UK, Israel and Honduras, the alienation of Karzai and continuing humiliation at the hands of China and Russia through diplomatic insults, showed weakness and stupidity. The Iranian takeover of the region is premised on that incompetence. Lebanon was a test. The next step was Tunisia. Then Egypt.

I will not consider any of this nonsense except to point out the fundamental disqualifying contradiction at the core of it: it was the G.W. Bush administration, in fact, not the Obama, that threatened as part of its “freedom agenda” to tie and cut off military aid to Egypt in relation to human and political rights, a subject of no interest to Morris and the Knish, but of great interest to a different kind of conservative, Elliott Abrams. So apparently it was the Bush administration, not the Obama, that was willing to sacrifice Mubarak and hardnosed U.S. interests in favor of a squishy “rights” agenda.

As we saw from Pareene, the same tendency toward blind bias appears on the Left, too. Last night on Rachel Maddow’s show, Maddow was intent on advancing the longtime, and significantly correct, theme of misguided American support, in advance of other legitimate interests, of anti-democratic regimes. However, in conversation with Martin Indyk, former Clinton administration ambassador to Israel, who believes that Mubarak should go, Maddow found Indyk not as single minded as she might have hoped, when he challenged her use of the term “propped up” regarding U.S. relations with the Mubarak regime. Mubarak did not need U.S. support to remain in power, and keeping him in power in opposition to better alternatives was never U.S. policy. But “propped up” certainly advances that slippery suggestion, and you could see Maddow’s disappointment when Indyk took issue with it. (You can learn about the details of U.S. aid to Egypt from ProPublica, here.)

Even normally clear-eyed observers and analysts of the Middle East can be led astray by their biases. Barry Rubin, of the Gloria Center, an essential analyst to read for insights particularly on Israel, is nonetheless not an Obama supporter. So on the same day that he wrote this at the Center website:

There is no good policy for the United States regarding the uprising in Egypt but the Obama Administration may be adopting something close to the worst option. This is its first real international crisis. And it seems to be adopting a policy that, while somewhat balanced, is pushing the Egyptian regime out of power,

he wrote this at his blog

While the Obama Administration is pushing too hard for my taste and not giving enough public support to the regime–not the Mubaraks personally–its critics seem to be even more wrong.

Would this be “more wrong” as in “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”? Maybe.

In close contention for the most misguided, simplistic judgment on a harrowingly complex foreign policy challenge, one significantly coming out of Israel, but in keeping with the opinions of those like Morris and Greenfield, is that Obama is betraying an ally in not fully supporting Mubarak. As we see, an idealistic “rights” agenda can motivate both Right and Left, though the Left portion would damn the Right side as imperialistic and the Right condemn the Left for toothless naiveté. Lighting my fire and cooking my beans (for the requisite hot air) in a more realistic camp, I am comfortable agreeing with both.

Managing a nation’s path through a frightfully complex and still developing human society requires pragmatic acts and a proper sense of the possible. The U.S. can neither forcefully achieve the liberty of other peoples nor navigate international waters refusing to do business with states that do not offer their people that liberty. However, the notion that dictatorial leaders with whom we have regrettable relationships of necessity should ever think of those relationships as true friendships requiring loyalty beyond expediency is a betrayal of every American and democratic ideal. The terms of these relationships are clear – mutual advantage under limiting circumstances. Leaders such as Mubarak are clear about who they are. The U.S. must always be clear about what it is, a free and pragmatic nation that may work with them as necessity might seem to require it, but never their loyal friend against the liberty of their people.


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