Watching recent events in Egypt I have had a sense of both surreal distance and of personal connection. Distance because it is hard to imagine that American "friend" Hosni Mubarak, recipient of more than $45 billion of U.S. military and economic aid, has finally been called out for his acts of brutal repression. Connection because one of the people Mubarak imprisoned was my brother-in-law.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim is an Egyptian academic sociologist and democracy activist. He is also married to my step-sister Barbara. In 2000 Saad was arrested by the national police, and charged by the Mubarak regime with embezzlement and defaming Egypt's image.
What Saad had actually done was to obtain a large academic grant from the European Union and spend it on research. He also publicly asked when Egypt was going to have free and fair elections. In response, Saad was sentenced to seven years of hard labor. Given the state of Egyptian prisons, and Saad's physical condition and age, it could have been a death sentence. He was finally released three years later.
I remember talking to Saad after he got out. His view of the American role was heartbreaking. Democracy activists in Egypt, and throughout the Middle East, had to distance themselves from America, he said. U.S. support for Mubarak was tarnishing America's image, just as Mubarak himself was tarnishing Egypt's image. How did we get to that point?
The answer is that American foreign policy seems to rest on a simple premise: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
Except it's not simple. It's a blatant double standard. Our attitude seems to be, "Sure, that dictator is a murderous thug, but he's our murderous thug"
Letting our enemies choose our friends is also dangerous. The U.S. supplied the rockets that the mujahedeen used to attack Russian helicopters in Afghanistan. Now we call the mujahedeen the Taliban, and they kill Americans. We also propped up Saddam Hussein and a host of other brutes who started out as docile U.S. puppets.
But the real problem is that we compound our errors in judgment with an error in doctrine. This disastrous policy was clearly stated in a 1979 Commentary article titled "Dictatorships and Double Standards" written by future Reagan administration U.N. Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick. In Kirkpatrick's view, dictatorships could be classified either as authoritarian or totalitarian, and the difference mattered.
Authoritarians can be useful allies, Kirkpatrick argued, because their rule is based on money and power. More importantly, authoritarians may give way to friendly, democratic regimes. The U.S. should just look the other way until they do.
Not so with totalitarians, according to Kirkpatrick. Totalitarians construct a regime that is persistent and expansionist. They don't care much about money or power. And they are animated by ideology.
Kirkpatrick's concern was communism, because that ideology appeared to be perpetual and communicable. No country, once it had "gone communist," could be expected to return to the fold of legitimate governments. And communist regimes actively tried to spread their ideas, like mutant strains of a deadly virus, to other nations.
That meant the U.S. was at war with an idea, and brutal tactics were required to stop the idea's spread. The U.S. therefore supported some pretty awful allies, and more than a few of the dissidents who were killed or tortured by those allies suffered at the hands of foreign military officers trained at U.S. bases.
The Kirkpatrick doctrine seems silly in retrospect. A lot of formerly communist countries have now found democracy, or something close to it. The holdouts, Cuba and North Korea, can barely feed themselves. But Cold War U.S. policy in Latin America has robbed us of our moral legitimacy, because we did little to foster the move towards democracy in that part of the world. If the U.S. could enable the near enslavement of much of Central America for decades by supporting the worst sort of thuggish authoritarians, how could we claim credit for anything except hypocrisy?
At least we won't make that mistake again, right? Wrong. We have a new Kirkpatrick doctrine that explains much of contemporary U.S. foreign policy. Instead of communism, the new mutant ideology is Islam.
The story goes like this: Islam is perpetual and expansionist. Any country that goes theocratic will never again be democratic. So even a bad authoritarian dictator is better than an Islamic totalitarian. Repression, torture, secret police, and thousands of political prisoners are all acceptable, provided the favored dictator is the enemy of our enemy. And once again our enemy is an idea. In Egypt, millions of people are struggling for self-determination. But democracy activists have to be careful not to be labeled "pro-American," because that would destroy their credibility. In other words, by supporting anti-Islamist thugs like Mubarak, we have contributed to the very problem we hoped to solve.
The defining struggle in Muslim-majority countries will not be between U.S.-supported dictators and radical Islamists. The future will belong to the victor in an ideological struggle between moderate Islam and the jihadist version.
Yet our policy has empowered the jihadists by revealing the stark contradictions between what Americans say about democracy and what we actually do. By supporting dictators who promise to be the enemy of our enemy, we have become our enemy's best friend.
The real solution is to allow new democracies to be born. Some of them may begin life as Iranian-style Islamic republics. But remember that the pro-democracy movement is alive in Iran, despite being brutally put down last year.
The U.S. role ultimately comes down to trust. Not trust of Islamic government, but a trust in the fundamental yearning of humans everywhere to have a say in their own government, and to control their own lives. This yearning, more than any other factor, tore down that wall in East Germany. Instead of helping to repress that desire, why don't we help unshackle it? Why won't the U.S. recognize that the most powerful mutant ideology is freedom?
Michael Munger is the Director of the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics program at Duke University.