Sunday, February 6, 2011

Keeping Egypt from Becoming Another Iran

Once again, American foreign policy finds itself behind the curve of events, supporting the status quo while urging reform, supporting a repressive establishment against the interests of the people.

American foreign policy has always been pragmatic, and indeed, it must be. At its core, however, our foreign policy should be consistent with the principles this country has always said it stands for—democracy, freedom, human rights, and the legitimate aspirations of all people as voiced in the Declaration of Independence.

President Eisenhower expressed this philosophy powerfully in his famous Farewell Address:

We yet realize that America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched . . . strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment. . . . Any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous hurt both at home and abroad.
—President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address, January 17, 1961

But if we look at America’s foreign policy in the Middle East, and indeed throughout most of the world, we find instead that U.S. foreign policy has been based primarily on the military and industrial interests of the United States—a very narrow definition of our national security interests. American foreign policy has virtually never been based on what is in the best interests of the people of a country because the military/industrial establishment views popular movements as inherently anti-American, which has in fact become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Of course, our government always seeks to portray its policy when possible as being for the betterment of the people.  Thus the Vietnam War was about protecting the South Vietnamese from the domination of the Communist North, and Iraq was, belatedly, to free the Iraqis from the yoke of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.  But in reality, that was not why the United States invested its blood and treasure in these efforts.  It was instead to protect its military/industrial interests.

How different the world would be today if the United States weren’t trapped in this conservative view of the world. What if instead of supporting governments that oppress their people, we supported the people in furtherance of our strategic long-term interests? 

One example of a lost opportunity was when Ho Chi Minh approached President Truman about providing support to his movement.  He was not anti-American although a Communist.  How might that have changed the events in Southeast Asia? 

Likewise whether it was support for the Shah of Iran or the assassinations of President Salvador Allende of Chile and President Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, the American government consistently has taken a conservative view inconsistent with the principles of our country.  And we have paid the price, in that the result has usually not been favorable for American strategic interests, except perhaps in the short term. 

Most recently, the tragedy of 9/11 and the rise of terrorism to a large extent flow from this failed foreign policy.  We must acknowledge that in the long-term, our foreign policy perspective has often been counter-productive.

U.S. foreign policy should instead support democracy around the world … through peaceful means, not imposition by American force … regardless of whether the resulting government is pro- or anti-American. Our policy must also show true concern and support for the legitimate economic needs and political aspirations of the people in Third World countries.

If through such policy actions we come to be seen as truly supporting the people rather than the governments that oppress them, then many countries that liberate themselves and their inhabitants would no longer be anti-American.  They might not be allies, but at worst they would be neutral, thus greatly increasing our national security.

The current events in Egypt are a case in point where America could pay dearly for its policy mistakes.  Because of our historic support for President Mubarek, as well as our support of Israel, the general mood of the “street” in Egypt is anti-American. 

Even though President Obama sincerely wants to improve relations with the people of Egypt and the other Muslim countries and spoke to them eloquently at the beginning of his term, his actions have spoken louder to them.  There has been no real change in American foreign policy vis a vie the Arab world.  He is trapped in the system that Eisenhower warned against.

What America is doing in Egypt is trying to find a way to support the establishment and thus current strategic interests while opening the door for freedom of expression and for the opposition to take part in government.  But proposing an interim government headed by the ex-security chief and current Vice President Suleiman, who would negotiate with the opposition while Mubarek is still on the scene, is almost bound to fail. 

It is highly unlikely that the Egyptian power structure is ready to give up its grip on power in future elections.   And it is unlikely that the opposition will trust anything Suleiman says.  Indeed, why would they trust the man who was in charge of crushing them? 

The “negotiations” that occurred today were not surprising therefore in their result.  Suleiman claimed progress on the issues and consensus while insisting that Mubarek stay till the elections; that was the spin that was put on the meeting in the government media.  The opposition said that nothing was accomplished and that demonstrations will continue.

The United States needs to be more daring and at a minimum come out clearly in support of the people and urge Mubarek to leave now.  For unless he agrees to go now, there will be no orderly transition. 

Further, we must use our close contacts with the Egyptian military to insure that they are a force for change. They will be the determining factor in whether real change occurs peacefully, or whether the revolution grows violent. Without pressure from the military, it is highly unlikely that the Egyptian power elite will ever agree to give up power peacefully.  And the military will only press for change in the power structure if they see it as being in their own interest.  That’s where America’s influence must come to bear. 

It is not too late to save Egypt from becoming another Iran.  Our goal should be to encourage the development of a country like Turkey … a country that blends secularism and Islam, engages an independent foreign policy, and has close relations with both the West and the Arab world.  While this may be less convenient than the old arrangement, if the choice is between another Iran or a Turkey, I think the choice is clear as to America’s best interests.

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