We all know President Barack Obama has covered himself and his country in shame with his reaction to the Egypt crisis. But which variety of shame are we talking about?
Did Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ignore the festering discontent in the Arab street, or did they too quickly pull the rug out from under Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a valued (and concomitantly expensive) American ally? Did the administration cynically discount the longing for freedom in every breast or did it get swept up by a naïve vogue for democracy in a region that has been allergic to democracy since the dawn of history? Should we condemn Obama for his appalling moral equivalency between peaceful demonstrators and government goons or for throwing in with a mob whose triumph will almost certainly end up jeopardizing Israel's security?
This potluck vituperation reached its zenith earlier this week with a celebrated Haaretz essay by Aluf Benn declaring that Obama "will go down in history as the president who lost Egypt." For good measure, Benn threw in Tunisia, Turkey, and the entire Middle East. Laced with tasty innuendo ("His message to Muslims was 'I am one of you'"), Benn's piece charges Obama with shying away from the blunt pro-freedom language of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, with abandoning friendly dictators in trouble, and also with sitting on the fence. The funny thing is that it's all true.
This is the problem with viewing every event in every country as a reflection of American policy. The pan-Arab convulsions that began in Tunisia last month have to be considered as a group, but each has its own set of circumstances. The Sunnis who were burning up the streets of Tripoli, Lebanon less than two weeks ago were protesting a power grab by Hezbollah. Earlier this week Hamas police were sufficiently threatened by a group of women demonstrating in Gaza that they cracked down on the demonstration. Protesters in Jordan were angered not so much by the plight of the country's poor as by a threat to its elite. In the unlikely event a Syria protest emerges, it will be against a mush-mouthed hereditary president who has been instituting phantom reforms for more than a decade while the economy and the culture have stagnated. Tunisians and Egyptians rebelled against calcified presidents for life. Who knows what the hell Yemenis are mad about?
The seesaw battle in Cairo demonstrates the danger of seeking to promote a better world through foreign policy. It's difficult enough to do diplomacy at its proper, potentate-to-potentate level. Seeking to advance great principles and guide morality among foreign populations is asking for trouble. What appears to be clear at a distance inevitably comes apart as you get closer to it.
Consider the economic discontent said to be at the base of the Egyptian uprising. Everybody seems to agree that putative free-market reforms helped bring on the troubles, but did they do so by lowering living standards or by raising them? (Marxist revolutionary theory to the contrary, political unrest has historically occurred most frequently when relative economic conditions are improving.) In an excellent contrarian narrative of the uprising, an Egyptian student who gives his name as Sam Tadros posits that good times enabled the revolution:
Gamal [Mubarak, Hosni's son and until recently heir apparent] step by step started rising inside the ruling NDP party. With him he brought two groups to the ruling coalition. First were the Western educated economic technocrats trained in international financial institutions they shared what is generally described as neo-liberal economic policies labeled the Washington Consensus. Secondly was the growing business community that was emerging in Egypt. Together they started the process of both restructuring the Egyptian economy and the ruling party.
For the technocrats it was the fiscal and economic policy that was their domain and they performed miracles. The Egyptian economy under the Nazif government showed unprecedented growth. The currency was devalued, investment was pouring in, and exports were growing. Even the economic crisis did not dramatically effect Egypt. The real disaster in all of this however is that no one actually rationalized or defended those policies to the Egyptian public. The country was moving towards a full capitalist system but no explained why that was needed or why it was ultimately beneficial. While such restructuring is naturally painful for a population that was dependent on the government for all its needs, the people were fed the same socialist rhetoric nonetheless. It mattered very little that the country was improving economically, people did not see that. It is not that the effects were not trickling down, they were. It is that the people were used to the nanny state for so many years that they could not understand why the government was no longer providing them with those services.
Al Jazeera's Hugh Macleod, on the other hand, brings in some anti-market commentators to set Mubarak off against another dictator, arguing that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is secure, among other reasons, because he has done a better job of managing the country's economy:
"Egypt and Tunisia applied the free market principles, but Syria has not. The government still controls the strategic keys to the economy," said [Souria al-Ghad editor Mazen] Bilal. "It's even opening up new jobs in the public sector to absorb more workers."
Abdullah Dardari, the deputy prime minister for economic affairs, said five years of reforms had increased incomes above the increase in inflation, with the relative spending power of the poor growing faster than the rich.
One in 10 Syrians live in poverty—but this figure is far below Egypt's rate of some 40 per cent. Official figures in Syria show unemployment fell from over 12 per cent in 2005 to 8.1 per cent in 2009, one per cent lower than the official rate in Egypt, where some analysts put it as high as 25 per cent. Average salaries in Syria have risen to $200 over the past few years, more than double the rate in Egypt.
There is some left-wing claptrap in there. An economic minister in a dictatorship is not an unbiased source on the success of a five-year plan, and however you want to draw the "poverty line," Egypt's per capita GDP is more than a third higher than Syria's. But Syria is a textbook example of a regime that maintains stability through enforced hopelessness.
While McLeod says that Assad's opposition to American and Israeli plans has helped him win over public opinion, there is no reason to believe public opinion is any different than it was decades ago: Given a chance, the people would rip the brutal, apostate Assad family to shreds. They are kept in line only by an iron security state and a frozen economy. Mubarak's counterattack on Wednesday suggests he has taken that example to heart. Even in the most vicious dictatorship, no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy is always an option.
There is no ideologically satisfying choice for the United States here. Were Mubarak to flee the country immediately (an outcome that looks less likely by the minute) it's pretty clear the next stage would not be for Egypt to become the Czech Republic. If he stays in power until September that means recalled California Gov. Gray Davis (who had to clear out his office the day of the election) would go down in history as a more toxic leader than Hosni Mubarak. Within the last day, the Obama Administration appears to have screwed up its hand again. By calling for Mubarak to move on, and by being ignored, Obama has provided another demonstration of American powerlessness.
For hawks who stay up all night worrying that somebody somewhere might be doubting America's machismo, that's a problem. For everybody else, it's nothing to worry about. It is up to Egyptians, not Americans, to decide what country they want. The history of American support for the regime—and for that matter the history of American meddling in the region and support for a variety of dictators—does not change that essential fact. I and many other Americans would like to see an immediate heave-ho given to the vile Mubarak (though in response to all the commentary about Mubarak's sickly and toad-like appearance, I must say he looks damn well for an 82-year-old). But that's a preference, not a foreign policy, which by its nature is about states, not people. The United States government, which recently re-opened its embassy in Syria, has to deal with other governments as they present themselves.
Obama can take heart in knowing that the argument between realists and visionaries is as old as the republic. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson tangled over how to respond to the French Revolution, with Jefferson seeing it as a continuation of the American struggle for liberty and Adams worrying about international stability. In light of the horrors the revolution ended up visiting on Europe, you'd have to say Adams was right, but for American interests alone, the revolution was a clear winner. Within a few years Napoleon, faced with massive economic and foreign policy challenges of his own, decided to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States at a fire-sale price. In foreign policy as in Hollywood, nobody knows anything.
However things shake out in Egypt, the United States will have a new situation and a new government to react to, one that we didn't create or stage-manage. That's not unreasonable; it's the same thing everybody else has to do with the United States every four years.
Tim Cavanaugh is a senior editor at Reason magazine.