On the Rachel Maddow show last night two good reasons were given for why the United States is on "the wrong side of history" when it comes to who we support in Egypt. One big reason is the Suez Canal, where the U.S. enjoys "first-in-line" status each and every day due to our support of President Mubarak. The second reason is that Egypt buys a lot of our expensive military hardware--from the high priced F-16 fighter jets to Chinook helicopters to M1-A1 Abrams tanks all the way down to handguns, assault rifles, and grenades. Egypt is second only to Israel on our military spending list. As Chris Weigand puts it in an op-ed column in The Huffington Post, "when American values conflicted with American national interests, our national interests always trumped our values." Selling stockpiles of weapons and ensuring unfettered, if undemocratic access through the Suez Canal are undoubtedly, if shamefully, in our national interest.
But those are only two of the good reasons we still support Mubarak.
The third reason is that the fellow likely to take his place, the person who has public support and a track record of accomplishments sufficient to have won him the Nobel Prize, happens also to be the person who spoke out the loudest and longest against the Bush administration's claims that Iraq was harboring weapons of mass destruction. Mohamed ElBaradei has demonstrated that while he was a supporter of Barack Obama presidency and applauded Obama's Nobel Prize last year, this week he has had the audacity to speak the truth in a way that no one could interpret as favorable support for our official position: "The American government cannot ask the Egyptian people to believe that a dictator who has been in power for 30 years will be the one to implement democracy," Mr. ElBaradei told CBS's "Face the Nation."
Unless the U.S. has someone leading Egypt who is likely to continue to support our national interests, even if that person enjoys widespread popularity, endorses open elections, promotes democracy, and stabilizes their economy, chances are good that we won't be entirely happy. As ironic as it is, the whole world is watching while we continue to support a corrupt leader who gives lip service to democracy and lies to us about his effectiveness--Karzai in Afghanistan--instead of a Nobel Prize winner who dares to tell us the truth.
David Brooks, writing his column in the New York Times today, put it this way:
"The other thing we've learned is that the United States usually gets everything wrong. There have been dozens of democratic uprisings over the years, but the government always reacts like it's the first one. There seem to be no protocols for these situations, no preset questions to be asked. . . .
Their instinct is to comfort the fellow members of the club of those in power. The Obama administration was very solicitous of President Hosni Mubarak during the first days of the protests and of other dictators who fear their regime may be next.
Then " the Obama administration ended up absurdly calling on Mubarak to initiate a reform agenda. Surely there's not a single person in the government who thinks he is actually capable of doing this. Meanwhile, the marchers heard this fudge as Obama supporting Mubarak and were outraged."
Now a reasonable person who understands global politics might accept that our national interests--even when that involves selling guns and strong-arming other nations' ships out of our way in the Suez--trump the promotion of democracy. Or at best compromise what we actually mean by it. And a reasonable person might be opposed to a proposed new leader on the grounds that said person should have kept his mouth shut about our policies in the region, freedom of speech be damned. But you have to wonder if such a reasonable and globally aware person would still think it a good idea--a good idea in our national interests--to support a well-documented tyrant who cannot hope to withstand the heat currently being applied by his own citizens, much less world opinion?
I think not. It's not reasonable. It doesn't make good sense. It is, to stoop to the vernacular, a dumb-ass political move that cannot help us in the long run. So there must be another reason why an otherwise reasonable person, or an administration such as the one currently running our show in Washington, would do such a thing.
Ah, yes, this quest for a more reasonable reason brings us to the fourth item on our list of why we are doing such a poor job of managing our democracy narrative and message to the world. It is a reason that goes by the name of Israel. Yes, that's it. Of course that is it!
Our unqualified and unwavering support for Israel must be the reason why we are so reticent about doing the right thing in Egypt. Now it all makes sense. For without someone running Egypt who buys our weapons, protects our place in line, and maintains a peaceful relationship with our main Middle Eastern ally, things could fall apart rather quickly. It might not just be the Islamist extremists who call for an uprising against Israel. For if the Muslim Brotherhood is vying for political legitimacy in a newly democratic Egypt in ways that mimic how Hamas came to power in Palestine, then Israel has a lot more to worry about than settlements on the West Bank. And if a U.S.-friendly regime is toppled in Egypt by a popular revolution that spreads to Jordan, well, that's a revolutionary movement that might then threaten what is already an uneasy peace throughout the region.
This is speculation, of course. No one knows what will happen when the last Pharaoh, er, I mean President Mubarak, is replaced. Surely he will be replaced, and soon. Nor does anyone I talk to know what is likely to happen in Jordan, or elsewhere in the region. This revolution, like the Green Revolution following the corrupt elections in Iran last year could fizzle out. But I doubt it.
So, too, do I doubt that the revolution in Egypt will lead to a radical Islamist takeover or even further support for extremist ideology. If anything, "It's a huge defeat for al Qaeda in a country of central importance to its image. It has wounded their credibility with potential supporters," said Noman Benotman, a former organizer for an al Qaeda-aligned group in neighboring Libya.
Mark Woodward, a seasoned expert on politics in the Islamic world, offers some advice that the Obama Administration would be wise to heed. In an article written yesterday he suggests that there may be an instructive parallel between what is going in Egypt today and what transpired in Indonesia more than a decade ago. He writes:
"More than a decade ago hundreds of thousands of Indonesians, most of them young people, came to the streets demanding the end to a dictatorial regime that had lasted for more than three decades. Today we see much the same in Egypt. We see also see the same reaction in Western media, the fear that protests may lead to the rise of an Islamist regime.