I’ve been reading a lot about the story of the elections in Egypt and I’m a little bit confused. The pre-voting frontrunners were Aboul Fotouh and Moussa, both of whom seemed like decent leaders for such a pivotal country–neither one combined the important “secular” and “not a former Mubarak Administration official” labels, but both seemed reasonably independent, pretty tolerant, and up to the job. Egypt has the reputation as one of the more liberal countries in the Middle East, relatively speaking, and that those guys were leading in the polls made sense, and perhaps indicated a broad consensus among the public at the outset of Egyptian democracy. Then they held the elections, and out of nowhere a much more conservative Islamist and one of Mubarak’s top lackeys proceed to the recall.
I have no idea what to make of this, but typically these sorts of sudden, dramatic changes indicate funny business going on, especially if the people who spontaneously benefit represent established power blocs. And, wouldn’t you know it, both of the finalists represent key blocs of power in Egypt that weren’t having any traction prior to the vote (i.e. the Muslim Brootherhood and the remnants of Mubarak’s regime). Wonder what really happened there.
- He was going to resign, but changed his mind and then realized he had to say something at his big press conference.
- He’s panicked, and trying to do whatever he can so that he can stay in office (why that’s such a good idea to him, I don’t know, since his term ends in a few months anyway).
In his second inaugural address in January 2005, President Bush declared that America would no longer “tolerate oppression for the sake of stability.” Mubarak responded nine days later by charging the country’s leading opposition figure, Ayman Nour, with forgery. But, at least initially, the Bush administration did not blink. On June 30, Condoleezza Rice traveled to the American University in Cairo and delivered a speech outlining Bush’s freedom agenda. “The Egyptian Government must fulfill the promise it has made to its people—and to the entire world—by giving its citizens the freedom to choose,” she said. “Egypt’s elections, including the parliamentary elections, must meet objective standards that define every free election.” A few months later, in September, Mubarak waltzed to victory over Nour in a sham presidential election. [...] The first round of the elections was relatively free, but in the second and third rounds, the national police ambushed ballot stations and used tear gas on crowds of voters. Some supporters of opposition candidates took to climbing on ladders to the second floor of polling stations because the police had blocked the entrance on the first floor. In the face of this repression, the response from Washington was muted. The State Department spokesman at the time, Sean McCormack, said he had “seen the reports” of voter intimidation, but did not condemn the regime directly.It’s difficult to get around this fact: “Like Obama now, Bush was relying on despots across the Middle East to fight a war on terror. How could Bush simultaneously ask for favors from these leaders in the fight against Al Qaeda while also undermining them with his freedom agenda?” Indeed. I feel like Obama doesn’t get enough credit for the way his administration (and particularly Secretary Clinton) have dealt with foreign policy crises, even though he routinely gets high marks from the voters in that area. The irony of Obama’s political situation is that it’s indistinguishable from what you’d expect from a Republican president’s during a time of economic downturn: he’s highly rated on foreign policy and lags on domestic policy. So it might seem a little silly to say that his administration’s foreign policy handling is underrated, since it is already highly rated. But I think it is nevertheless underrated. Foreign policy is, in my opinion, easily the most complicated part of a president’s job description. It’s also the one least amenable to simple black-white distinctions. More often than not, those distinctions hurt more than help, as the nuances and details are critically important (which is not to say that morality doesn’t enter into it!). If you want to know why such absolutely insane notions of foreign policy have proliferated on the right in the last decade or two, it helps to realize that it’s a function of the limitations of total black/white, right/wrong thinking. What happens when you try to have theory strong enough on foreign affairs that it covers all the major facts on the ground, but also provides didactic, right/wrong appraisals for every single idea in foreign policy? You get John Bolton, of course! Never mind that he’s completely insane, that’s what you have to do to square the peg, as it were. It’s amazing that the party that produced Richard Nixon has lost the ability to understand any of this, because I consider Nixon’s successful overtures to China a brilliant example of rejecting the analysis that because a country is bad, so therefore we should never deal with that country ever. If not dealing with a country could bring about a greater degree of justice, it would make sense to explore it, but frequently it doesn’t. So where do you go next? Obama, of course, does not think like this. He is, like myself, an avid student of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose Irony Of American History is still the definitive text for anyone who tries to apply conscience to the real-world grubbiness of foreign affairs. From that, you get some pretty good insights: preemptive war is a terrible idea because one never knows what will happen and alternatives can be found, intervening in a foreign conflict might well make it worse despite any intentions, and once war is begun it takes a course of its own and is impossible to predict or control. He also talks about how a country that the act of exercising national power invariably diminishes it, since you have less power to do other things. Perhaps the most important principle he gets across is that nations just aren’t like people. It’s considered morally abhorrent to, say, walk by somebody being beaten up or raped and not at least call the cops. Similar analogies are often invoked by hawks, to varying levels of effectiveness, in justifying foreign invasions. But the analogy falls flat because, if you were to try to intervene in crime in that way, you are consciously putting your existence on the line for someone else, possibly sacrificing yourself for them. In international politics, nations will never do this. They’ll never let themselves be destroyed just to save another country. America didn’t in World War II, we waited until we were attacked ourselves to get involved. Good or bad, it is what it is. If self-sacrifice is an unacceptable option in foreign affairs, clearly the ethics and morality of this arena will play out differently than it would in individual affairs. An individual has the right to put his or her life on the line to protect others, but putting others’ lives on the line is a very different question, and analogizing the two often leads to tragedy. As for comparing and constrasting the two, I think Obama would like the world to be free every bit as much as Bush did. But it’s not a matter of just having the same goals–the very assumptions one makes about the world are important here. The Bush Administration was such a failure because it really did believe it could impose a liberal democratic order from on high. It always acted as though there were a morally acceptable (to them) way out of any crisis or problem, and frequently found itself faced with humiliating failures when those choices didn’t pan out (like the PA elections that put Hamas in charge). Its dealings with figures like Mubarak couldn’t help but look impotent next to its grand statements enjoining against the dread “rewarding bad behavior” toward dictators, which Lake notes. Throw in some off-base neocon assumptions about The Soul Of Humanity and freedom, and you have a recipe for a series of complete disasters. Obama, on the other hand, has acted prudently in the cases of unrest in Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt. Wrenching as it might be for some to accept that less is more when it comes to these scenarios–does anyone seriously doubt McCain would have cheered on all of these uprisings like the neocons wanted, and might even have sent in troops to “stabilize” the situation?–Obama, Clinton, and their team have made as few moves as possible in all of these situations, all of which have been calculated to avoid compromising the organic nature of the uprisings–deploring the violence, refusing to defend the dictators, and so on. If one considers Middle Eastern dictatorship an inherently unstable situation, and if one sees humankind as particularly valuing stability, and if democracy is the most stable of all possible governments, it is only a matter of time before things get there. Letting them happen organically, even if they don’t always take hold, will make the movements more powerful. (Iran will likely require a few more pushes before turning over.) I like that Obama has said stuff like this before, but I like it more that his team acts like it’s true. Put another way, the way Obama’s Administration is playing out, it’s looking a lot like how Dwight Eisenhower’s time in office went. Eisenhower was criticized for not backing the Hungarian Revolution with military force, and for years his reputation was quite poor on account of “not doing anything” while in office. Of course, his “not doing anything” kept us out of war with China, Vietnam (for a time) and the Soviet Union. Of all modern presidents, Eisenhower’s term most reflected a Niebuhrian sense of humility with power, of the cost of war. Obama seems to understand these things too, and I couldn’t imagine better company for our current president.
Egypt actually has fairly positive views of America. Egyptians don’t like Israel at all, though. As I was periodically checking in with Mid-East unrest over the weekend I was wondering just how panicked Benjamin Netanyahu must be, since the regimes that Israel’s peace depends on are led by autocrats who can impose peace despite popular opposition. It turns out: he’s fucking panicked. One wonders whether this wave of uprisings will actually make the Middle East more democratic, about which I have my doubts, though ElBaradei has always struck me as a decent guy and he’d be an improvement over Mubarak. It seems like it could pressure Israel into actually resolving the Palestinian conflict lest they be suddenly surrounded by hostile, popular democracies who would use it as a rallying point against them. Even for a greater Israel type like Bibi, there’s a certain logic to dealing with it now. Perhaps I’m being too hopeful. I guess we’ll see.
Still, it’s interesting that America actually is fairly popular. I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising. I was talking to a friend of mine a while ago who is from the general area and has spent significant time in the Middle East, and he insisted that Egypt was the most liberal and modern of all the Middle Eastern countries, and it formed the counterbalance to the much more conservative regimes of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Just something to keep in mind the next time you hear sweeping generalizations about how the whole Middle East hates America.
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