All contemporary U.S. presidents vacillate between promoting democratic values and human rights around the globe versus protecting security or national interests. Usually, “realpolitik” comes out on top.
The moment of high tension for President Barack Obama arrived last week as the populist uprising against President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt escalated, to the surprise and consternation of Washington. Obama gave an eloquent speech in Cairo on the value of democracy in 2009; Egypt and Mubarak have been among the most important U.S. allies in the Middle East, receiving about $1.5 billion a year in assistance.
This schism between national interest and values was on embarrassing display as the Obama administration struggled to keep up with fast-changing events. When street demonstrations started in Cairo -- in the aftermath of the rebellion in Tunisia that forced out the autocratic leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali - - the emphasis in Washington was on regional stability and Egypt’s importance; the president said little. Vice President Joseph Biden went so far as to insist Mubarak isn’t a dictator.
On Jan. 28, after intense internal deliberations, the administration publicly began to change its signals. By mid-afternoon, Obama’s senior adviser, David Axelrod, openly criticized the Egyptian government’s actions, and Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, said the U.S. might cut off aid if Mubarak crushed the demonstrators. By early evening, Obama addressed the nation, reporting he had called his Egyptian counterpart to warn him against a violent response and vowing the U.S. would “stand for the rights of the Egyptian people.”
Privately, the administration has little confidence in its ability to shape the outcome. Even more of a quandary, officials say, is uncertainty over what effect this crisis will have on other countries in the region, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and, of course, Israel.
Obama follows in a long line of presidents with ambivalent positions on promoting democracy in Egypt. Six years ago, the centerpiece of President George W. Bush’s second inaugural speech was his “Freedom Agenda,” a vow to spread democracy and end tyranny around the world.
“Every ruler and every nation,” the 43rd president said, should know that “success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people.”
Bush was widely praised, though there were skeptics; Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Democratic foreign-policy strategist, said the speech was “high-sounding rhetoric” without “a real sense of priorities or directions.”
This proved prophetic, as most entreaties Bush may have made to Mubarak were done in private, and in short time, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was publicly embracing the Egyptian ruler. Not surprisingly, by 2008, a survey of public opinion in Arab countries, conducted by the University of Maryland and Zogby International, showed that, overwhelmingly, the people didn’t believe the U.S. was serious about spreading democracy.
No president came into office more devoted to human rights than Jimmy Carter three decades earlier. Yet when confronted with the repressive policies of a key strategic ally, the shah of Iran, the administration waffled.
The upshot was that the shah was overthrown by an Islamic revolution, and the Carter administration and the U.S. lost on all counts. The Iranians, deeply resentful of American support for the shah that long predated Carter, were virulently anti-American and the realpolitik experts assailed Carter for failing to support an ally.
And when it comes to human rights, nowhere have the conflicts and contradictions been more pronounced than in Washington’s dealing with other superpowers. President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser, were deeply embroiled in fights with congressional Democrats and conservative Republicans over issues such as the Soviet Union’s treatment of Jews, which the administration considered a distraction from major geopolitical concerns.
This conundrum has been equally evident in dealings with China, as it becomes an emerging economic and political rival. Each of the last three administrations came into office determined to emphasize human rights and political freedoms, and then subsequently decided that economic and security interests were more important.
In Washington this past weekend, there was confusion over the evolving events in Cairo. The best intelligence seemingly came from Al Jazeera, though the network said yesterday that the government closed its offices and withdrew the accreditation of its reporters; the administration badly underestimated the depth of the protests.
There’s now a broad consensus that Mubarak won’t last, though there is no real sense of exactly how his tenure will end or what will come next. Administration officials take solace that the uprising, stoked by internet social networks, is about freedom and opportunity and not religious or cultural demands.
Still, the tones of anti-Americanism got louder yesterday, and these elements no doubt are aware that for more than 30 years, the U.S. has solidly supported authoritarian rule. Although the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood was late to the parade in Egypt, some officials fear it could emerge as the most formidable post-Mubarak political force.
Moreover, there is no certainty as to whether or how these protests on the Arab streets will spread through the region, whether they will imperil American strategic allies like Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Though less likely, they could pose a threat to the anti-American regime in Iran.
Reflecting this long tension in U.S. foreign policy, conservatives may be as ambivalent as the administration. Some of the Tea Party Republican newcomers instinctively side with any anti-authoritarian or anti-government forces. Yet Representative Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan, the chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, implored the administration to get behind the Mubarak regime, warning of the parallels to Iran three decades ago.
“The Egyptian demonstrations are the reprise of Iran’s 1979 radical revolution,” McCotter said. “America must stand with her ally Egypt to preserve an imperfect government capable of reform and prevent a tyrannical government capable of harm.”
Predictably, some Republicans will blame the administration no matter the policy or outcome.
“Obama has no good choices, and he may blame himself for this in part for two years of laughing at the Freedom Agenda instead of embracing it,” said Elliot Abrams.
Abrams was a national security adviser in the administrations of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. Both, with little equivocation, supported Mubarak.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)