The Egypt Paradox

We the people support democracy. We the people support individual rights. We the people are deeply committed to the twin concepts of liberty and freedom. We the people believe that a world carved in our image will be a better world. We the people, secure in our shared history and insulated from the bloodletting that served as the crucible of our democracy, have never had any real idea of how to bring these dreams to reality in a diverse and often dangerous world. And so we are now confronted with our inability to turn dreams into practical actions by the inconvenient political drama that is Egypt.

We should, in the spirit of our own founding documents, rally to the aid of those rising against Hosni Mubarak. He is a dictator in the most basic and pure definition. Those millions who have conducted mostly peaceful protests over the last week, represent an oppressed majority clamoring for self-representation. But we are forced to play a dangerous game of revolutionary chicken; we can’t swerve until we know which side will win. President Obama, by the accounts of the overwhelming bulk of foreign policy experts not employed by Fox News, has played the game to near perfection…so far. But this won’t be the last game that this President, or any President, will have to play. The Egypt Paradox is already warming up in a number of other countries.

And this isn’t the first time that we the people have been faced with a foreign policy quagmire courtesy of our own mud. The United States has a proud history of supporting the wrong people for the “right” reasons; at least the “right” reasons in a transitory political, military, or economic sense. Our long, bipartisan history of supporting every two-bit hustler who scratches an American itch has entangled us in untold grief. Despots and drug lords have long been the favorite proxy-fighters for American interests, not democracy-loving freedom fighters.

We sparked a century of distrust in the region by double-crossing Columbia in order to build the Panama Canal. We supported a cruel and corrupt leader in Cuba and so paved the way for Castro to become a Soviet client. We turned down the request of Ho Chi Minh, who wanted aid and at least tacit support for his revolution against the French. The leader of the Vietnamese revolution went to China for help instead. Ironic, isn’t it, the Viet Nam War as direct consequence of our support for the French. It gets better though; our puppet in South Viet Nam was another morally compromised strong man; an American archetype that has resonated through the decades. Is anyone else thinking of Hamid Karzai?

Foreign policy is no simple thing…anyone that suggests that “All we have to do is….(pull out of everywhere); (be powerful militarily)”, is divorced from reality. But some day America must grow up and realize that tactical gains resulting from a complete departure from our stated principles will always be short term. Thinking of most of our current foreign policy nightmares, we must sadly look squarely in the mirror. It was the United States that supported the brutal Shah of Iran, and so pushed revolutionary spirit squarely behind Islamic Fundamentalists. It was a pair of U.S. foreign policy functionaries in the Ford Administration, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who gave Iran their first nuclear technology transfer.

We the people supplied armaments and technical support to Saddam Hussein, he was after all fighting Iran. We also supported corrupt military dictatorships in Pakistan and Egypt, and monarchies in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and throughout the Persian Gulf. All of these choices were made in the context of pressing short term needs; we are afraid of Islamic Fundamentalists gaining control of too many nations. We like and appreciate governments able to violate their own citizen’s rights with impunity, so that we can remain “safe” without the erosion of too many of our own liberties (a reason of deep suspicion in the aftermath of the Patriot Act and Military Commissions Act).

But people know who is in bed with their oppressors; they always know. They know even if the tear gas canisters riot police are firing at them aren’t stamped, “Made in the U.S.A.” When your rights are violated by a government in which you have no say, and when the United States supports that government, you are going to support the first revolutionaries who espouse and anti-U.S. message. When that support is articulated through direct violence, as has been the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, the message is received loud and clear. Please not that moral or strategic justifications for the U.S. being in another country will always fall on deaf ears when those ears have heard the screams of a dying loved one. This is no cry for peace or pacifist manifesto; this is an articulation of inescapable facts. The side of evil is a matter of perspective.

President Obama’s direction seems to be an articulation of careful disengagement (drone attacks in Yemen notwithstanding). He may very well pass this test with flying colors, but it is just the appetizer. This test in Egypt, this paradox of foreign policy, will be repeated. It will arise again in Iran, Jordan, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and more. It will involve a clash of competing emotions and strategic goals. When Hamas won the free elections in the Gaza, the United States was forced to deal with an awful truth; not all democracy is equally palatable. When neoconservatives and the ignorant sycophants at Fox News talk about U.S. style democracy, they are missing one inescapable point; U.S. style democracy only exists in and works within the U.S. (and then sometimes questionably).

Democracy has always been (unfortunately) defined by the blood of those who fight for it. It is defined by the blood-stained soil of the place of its origin. For all the American blood spilled in Iraq, it will be Iraqis who determine the course of their democracy. There is nothing written that promises we the people will or must like the final form. We find then that the Egypt Paradox is, in fact, the paradox of democracy. It is assuredly the best form of government, because it is the form which has the potential to most clearly reflect the desires of a majority of its citizens. But being a democracy does not guarantee the preservation of basic rights, the existence of tolerance, or a posture of peace and friendship towards one’s neighbors. As America has demonstrated these realities time and again through our history, so must we be prepared as another perhaps different group of patriots defines their version of democracy.

The Rational Middle is listening…

4 thoughts on “The Egypt Paradox

  1. Mr. Frank:

    No problem. You’re entitled to your opinion and I’m sure you understand I am speaking of the interests of “America” as a whole, not to the individual interests of those who may feel their interests or concerns trump those of others.

    Generally speaking, I feel an entire Middle East, governed by non-secular, possibly radical Islamic Governments, is most likely not in the over all best interest of America as a whole. And I’m sure at some point, the difficulties would filter down to negatively impact the specific concerns of individuals such as yourself.

    Therefore, I guess I would have to say I feel that if things go badly over there, “at some point “our” interests would ultimately end up being “your” interests as well.

  2. Dear Hank,

    I take personal objection to your expression of “our interests” not including the right of self-determination of the Egyptian people. So in the future express it as “all American citizens interests except for Paul Frank, . . .” Thank you.

    Oh, I checked. There are more American citizens who request exclusion from “our interests”, so you are going to need to make a long list of exceptions. Actually, you might try a more factual approach, say, “the financial interests of many of our larger corporations,” or, well, you can work it out. Possibly, if you actually make explicit the interests you are speaking of–whose interests, what the nature of those interests are–maybe everything will be clearer.

    Paul Frank

    PS–Yes, this was rude, but I take strong exception to your speaking of US “interests” so callously. My apologies for my childishness.

  3. Case in point. You have articulated, albeit from a different slant in obvious areas, exactly what I have been thinking about the events in Egypt.

    I do not agree the President is handling this situation well. Unless you are willing to surrender without objection any degree of influence from the US in support of our interests. And I feel a bad precedent is being set for the future when our allies will have to make a decision whether or not they can depend on the US.

    I’m not sure at what point the US can AFFORD to simply sit back and allow events to unfold and then deal with the results. Although, it may well be that we have no choice.

    I am beginning to be of a thought that much of this unrest could be evidence the US and Western interests have once again been trumped by radical influences in the Middle East. With the popular uprisings of the “people” of the several countries in the area right now, the US is in an untenable position of pretty much being forced to support these uprisings of the “people”. Governments will be forced to change and I feel the voids will be filled by non-secular regimes that not only do NOT have any concern for the interests of the US and the Western Worlds or Governments. But will be actively and aggressively hostile to our interests.

    We are in for a rough ride. And in my opinion, we lack the political expertise and conviction in the Office of the Presidency to properly deal with it.

  4. I am most at odds here with your repetition of “paradox” here, where what is actually at issue is the selfish, (not to mention foolhardy), choices we make. Embracing the right of a people’s self-determination includes allowing that their choices may be offensive to us. My ties to humanity do not end at the national border, and the US’s almost institutionalized international selfishness is not a paradox in the name of human rights; it is simply wrong. It is American hypocrisy that is the villain here, and one that our children will pay dearly for.

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