The recent revolt in Tunisia has been followed by massive unrest in Egypt, and frustrations are beginning to bubble into actions in a number of other Middle-Eastern dictatorships. Is it 1989 again? Too soon to say that, but things are moving quickly, and, should Mubarak fall, it will surely encourage revolt in other nearby countries with underemployed and unhappy young populations.
It was in 1987 that Ronald Reagan commanded Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” in Berlin, and that was after two terms of a presidency in which he never stopped his rhetorical attack on the evils of communism. He was out of the presidency when his words and policies bore their ultimate fruit. Likewise, George W. Bush made his freedom agenda a centerpiece of his presidency after 9/11, pressuring even stalwart allies like Mubarak to start loosening the chains and inching towards democracy, and constantly referring to freedom not as America’s patented idea, but as “God’s gift to humanity.” Have no doubt about it: this stance of his horrified many in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, accustomed to decades of realpolitik, where practical considerations always outweighed starry-eyed notions such as the transformative power of liberty. But he kept it up, and it formed a major part of his second inaugural address (the most soaring part):
America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.
So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.[…]
Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world:
All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.
Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country.
The rulers of outlaw regimes can know that we still believe as Abraham Lincoln did: “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.”
The leaders of governments with long habits of control need to know: To serve your people you must learn to trust them. Start on this journey of progress and justice, and America will walk at your side.
I bolded that last paragraph because it is the one that clearly applied to a regime like Egypt’s. Mubarak had been a useful ally of the United States, but Bush was sending a pointed message: start moving towards democracy. And the message was actually received. Movement was made in the form of a somewhat contested presidential election in September of 2005. The election was far from being above criticism (with limits on eligible candidates and Mubarak winning with over 88% of the vote) but it was a first step towards democracy in a nation with little history of it. Follow-up legislative elections, however, showed Mubarak getting cold feet about even such first steps, with dissident voices ending up imprisoned.
Still, it’s hard to wave candy in front of a hungry child and then draw it back. Disappointing his people with faux moves towards democracy only exacerbated the frustration. Seeing neighbors in Tunisia stand up successfully to their own dictator has emboldened the Egyptian people, clearly.
Pity the Obama administration. This was not on Barack’s agenda, and unlike Bush, he doesn’t know where to plant his feet in a situation like this. The administration has been reacting to events instead of anticipating them, and the reactions have not been good. Vice-President Joe Biden’s remarks last night to the effect that Mubarak is not a dictator and should stay in power were atrociously ill-judged. He went on:
“I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that – to be more responsive to some of the – some – some of the needs of the people out there.”
Ah Joe, God love ya! The time for such timid and paltry moves on Mubarak’s part has obviously come and gone. In the context of fighting in the streets of Cairo, the Vice President of the United States should have been demanding that, at a minimum, Mubarak should come out of his bunker and announce a date definite for free and fair elections.
We can’t control the situation in Egypt. We don’t know what a government after Mubarak will look like, and to what extent Islamists will end up wielding power. So, yes, any revolution is dangerous for U.S. interests. But with two-thirds of Egypt’s population under 30, and poverty and unemployment endemic, it’s pretty clear that something is going to happen — something other than everyone living happily ever after with Dictator Mubarak being succeeded by Dictator Mubarak Junior. It is most important that America not be seen as having been on Mubarak’s side against the people in the crucial hour. As Bush also said during his presidency, for too long the desire for stability in the Middle East has put Western governments in the position of turning a blind eye to oppression. That’s why the Obama administration, from Barack to Hillary Clinton and to poor clueless Joe Biden, ought to be making sure America is seen as being on the side of the people in demanding democracy now. It is about the only card the U.S. can play to help shape the attitude of the next Egyptian government towards existing commitments which are vital to American interests.
It being a centerpiece of Bush’s agenda, he would not have allowed his administration to be stumbling in a purely reactive mode at a time like this. But the world has to deal with the U.S. president who’s in office at any given time (and unforunately the world elected Barack Obama in 2008).
In his book, Decision Points, Bush closes a chapter dealing with his freedom agenda with his meeting, in Abu Dhabi, with a variety of government officials in the relatively forward-looking and prosperous Arab emirate. He noted the group included a number of young, smart women, and it made him optimistic. He went on:
[I]n the desert that night, I saw the future of the Middle East — a region that honors its ancient culture while embracing the modern world. It will take decades for the changes set in motion in recent years to be fully realized. There will be setbacks along the way. But I am confident in the destination: The people of the Middle East will be free, and America will be more secure as a result.
George W. Bush never made any bones about his confidence and optimism in that regard, and certainly was mocked for it by some. Some say Islam is just incompatible with freedom, and there is a lot of history and some very strong arguments to deploy along those lines. I think Bush was not oblivious to all that, but he believed that for a reformed Islam to ever become prevalent, it needed an atmosphere of freedom in which to take root and grow. Events in Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, and other Middle-Eastern nations over the coming years are likely to prove once and for all whether Bush was right.
Addendum: Also see Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post:Can the U.S. get on the right side in Egypt?