Egypt: American Values and Foreign Policy

Dubai – American foreign policy should aim to support American interests. Those interests—security of American lives and property, free and open trade and movement, and human dignity—are not independent of American values—respect for the rights and responsibilities of each individual, free press, etc. I have written on this theme from time to time, e.g. or or .

What does it say about what our policy should be toward the regime and events now underway in Egypt? I am sure that, like me, most American’s are cheering for the Egyptians in Tahrir Square in Cairo to throw the tyrant Mubarak out and establish a democratic government. Several questions and issues arise.

We are citizens of a free country and can cheer for whomever we like. We cheered the Hungarians rising up against their Soviet oppressors in 1956.  But when the U.S. government seemed to urge them on via Radio Free Europe and the Voice of American, many Hungarians felt betrayed when America did not come to their aid. Imagine for a moment, as glorious as it might have seemed at the time (at the beginning), if we had sent troops to Budapest to fight the Soviets. No one can know how that might have come out, but it is pretty certain that the most peaceful collapse of an empire—the Evil Soviet Empire—between 1989-91 never would have occurred peacefully.

While our private cheering comes easily—too quick and easy sometimes—our government must worry about whether a change in the status quo is likely to result in a better arrangement for the average Egyptian and for our own security and that of our allies in the area (Israel). Our government is not as free as you and I are to publicly express its opinions about the rulers it prefers to see in other countries. The United States had good reasons for developing good relations with the Egyptian government. With billions of dollars in aid and diplomacy we bought considerably enhanced security for Israel. With the signing of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty Egypt became the first Arab nation to recognize the state of Israel ending the state of war that existed between them. Egypt has been a good partner with the U.S. in promoting acceptance of Israel and peace in the area.

But while we can and should cooperate with Egypt and other governments in areas that promote peace and security, we should never turn our backs on our underlying values of human rights and democracy. This is not always an easy balance to maintain and the Obama administration has been doing a reasonably decent job of it. Mubarak has displayed the bad habit of almost all dictators of imposing increasingly nasty measures to remain in power. The popular uprising in Egypt justifies America’s pressure on Mubarak to step down and allow fair elections. While Israel’s current attacks on the United States for its betrayal of Mubarak can be understood from the perspective of Israel’s perceived, but shortsighted, security interest, it provides a vivid example of the fact that though America is rightly committed to the military defense of Israel, Israel’s interests are not always identical with ours.

The American government is also right to worry that replacing a corrupt and repressive government does not automatically result in a better one. It needs to use its diplomatic influence to guide the process toward a peaceful, orderly change in government with open and fair elections in September. It must not repeat President George W Bush’s mistake of insisting on elections in the West Bank and Gaza and then refusing to recognize the results when they favored Hamas. That sad episode made a mockery of American’s commitment to democracy. Democracy does not always produce good results (results that are consistent with the rule of law and human rights that are core American values) and we should not always push for it when conditions are not promising.

Egypt, like Turkey, is a relatively secular, largely Islamic country. The mildly outlawed Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is very unlikely to dominate a new government unless we badly misplay our cards. According to Daniel Levy, an Israeli now at the New America Foundation: “The ability to use the Islamist boogieman to fuel US fears draws on a combination of unfamiliarity and ignorance, cultural arrogance, and real policy differences on regional issues, notably on Israel. That Arab publics left to their own devices should freely choose to support religious conservatives should largely be none of our business: Americans in many states make a similar choice at the ballot box. That American policymakers have so few links into the MB or serious channels of communication is simply a failure of American policy.” “Complicating the Transition in US – Egyptian Relations” Foreign Policy”

The Obama administration should pressure Mubarak to make changes to the Egyptian constitution that will allow fair elections, appoint a technocratic caretaker government until the September elections, and encourage the Egyptian military, which receives about $1.2 billion a year in U.S. assistance, to maintain security in a politically neutral way. Obama should tell Mubarak firmly that it is time for him to go, as President Reagan did to Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986.

The groundswell for reform from Tunisia, to Egypt, to Sanna and beyond opens opportunity for positive change in the Middle East.  Such events cannot be controlled but they can certainly be influenced for better or worst. The United State must remain rooted in its core believes and values while supporting the strengthening of the rule of law and the rights of individuals.