Turmoil in Egypt Shows Shortsightedness of US Foreign Policy

Over the last few days, Egyptians have taken to the streets, demanding that Egyptian president and dictator Hosni Mubarak step down. The protests so far haven’t had a religious or anti-American bent. They’re not Islamist. They are a wave of people – mostly young people – expressing their frustration at corruption, joblessness, economic stagnation, and above all, at the lack of political and personal freedoms that we in the West enjoy.

Protests in Cairo

I am a US citizen, but I was born in Egypt, have returned multiple times, and have family there today. It’s difficult to find fans of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Mr. Mubarak is the third ‘president’ of Egypt and has held that role for 29 years. While Egypt has elections of a sort, they’re largely charades orchestrated to rubber stamp Mubarak and his National Democratic Party. Egyptians essentially have no say in who governs them. Nor are they allowed to speak out against the government. That alone is an offense for which one may be imprisoned, beaten, or occasionally killed.

Yet Egypt is also a recipient of American aid. Since 1975, the US has sent more than $40 billion in direct military aid to Egypt, out of a grand total of $60 billion in military and economic aid. That aid keeps the totalitarian regime in power.

The US has done this for clear reasons. Egypt was the first Arab country to recognize and make peace with Israel. For that, Egypt is rewarded with aid. In addition, Egypt is a key military partner. US and Egyptian forces conduct joint exercises in the area every year. And Egypt is the site of the Suez Canal, a vital shipping lane that connects Europe and the Mediterranean to the Gulf, India, China, Japan, and more. Along with the Panama Canal, it’s one of the most vital and vulnerable sea passages in the world. The US, along with rest of the industrialized world, has a vested interest in keeping the Suez Canal open and under stable management. Egypt provides that.

For those reasons and more, the US has continued to prop up the government of Hosni Mubarak for decades. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have both urged Egypt to embrace free speech and allow more dissent and hold more open elections, but those words ring hollow when the US continues to send $2 billion a year in aid to the country. What’s more, no administration has been willing to mix the issues of US support and domestic political reform.

Vice President Joe Biden said a few days ago that Mubarak is not a dictator and that he should not step down. Mr. Biden knows full well that Mubarak is a dictator – an unelected and unpopular leader who uses torture, summary arrest, and a perpetual ‘state of emergency’ to maintain power.

Ten months ago, in March 2009, Hilary Clinton said that human rights violations shouldn’t interfere with a planned trip by Mubarak to Washington DC, and that she considered Mubarak and his wife friends of the family.

There are good reasons for the United States to want a stable and pro-US government in place in Egypt. Yet the protests on the street today show how supporting convenient dictators can have negative consequences. If those protesters on the street do manage to topple Mubarak, what will a new government in Egypt look like? What will its attitude be to towards the US, given that the US has supported a regime that has oppressed the Egyptian people for the last 30 years?

The reality is that if a new Egyptian government is hostile to the US, that will be in part a natural response to US behavior. For multiple decades, the United States has put dollars into the hands of a dictator who suffers no dissent. The tear gas Egyptian security forces are hurling into crowds was made in the United States. When Egyptian security forces open fire and kill protesters, there’s a case to be made that they’re doing so on American dollars.

The US has a long history of supporting convenient dictators. America did so with the Shah of Iran, who rewarded American patronage with sites for US military bases useful for force projection. America did so with Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, reversing the US stance on the coup that brought him to power and even on his country’s flagrant violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, because Pakistan was a potential ally help in tracking down Al Qaeda. And the US has done so with Hosni Mubarak, helping him suppress democracy in exchange for his support of Israel and of US military and foreign policy aims in the region.

These policies are extremely shortsighted. They belie a lack of faith in one of the founding principles of the United States: that governments are created by the people, for the people. Americans generally believe democracy to be the best form of government ever created, and yet in US foreign policy America often turns its back on freedom and democracy in order to achieve short term goals.

There will always be short term threats. There will always be economic resources the US needs access to. There will always be locations where the US wants to place military bases, or countries to fly over on the way to others. Yet we Americans shouldn’t allow these temptations to distract us from either our long term safety or from the values and principles that have made the United States such a great nation.

Those values and principles center on liberty – on personal freedom of expression, on the right of the governed to choose who governs them, on protection from tyrannical excesses. If we believe that all men and women are endowed with certain inalienable rights, then we should behave that way in our international affairs. Today the US behaves as if only Americans are endowed with those rights. The world sees this behavior, and the trust afforded the United States is diminished by it.

Moreover, all principles aside, it is simply in the long term best interests of the United States and the entire world to encourage democracy, liberty, and widespread prosperity across the whole of the planet. Democracies seldom war with one another. They seldom produce terrorists. They do tend to lower corruption, lower populace frustration, and lift prosperity. More democracies in the world would mean fewer hotspots for the US military planners to worry about. They’d mean fewer potential terrorists in training. They’d mean more natural allies for the United States and other democratic powers to work with to solve global problems.

Twin Towers

The coming decades will only increase the extent to which spreading democracy is in the best interest of the United States, and to which supporting dictators, however tempting in the short run, is a threat to American security and global security. The last decade made it clear that highly motivated individuals and small groups can wreak tremendous havoc against vastly superior nation states. Witness 9/11. Yet the continued development of technology makes it possible to imagine terrorist actions that would make 9/11 pale by comparison.

Nuclear terrorism, always a threat, remains on the table. Bioterrorism, until now largely a hypothetical, will become more and more plausible as the basic tools of biotechnology continue their exponential drop in price and their dissemination to hobbyists.  Electronic attacks will become more and more dangerous as industrialized nations built computer-controlled smart grids and increasingly connect physical infrastructure to the global net.

No amount of security can be guaranteed to catch all threats. And as it becomes possible to put together terrorist threats with less money, less expertise, less time, and fewer people, traditional security mechanisms will become less and less effective. That does not mean the US and other democracies should give up on efforts to catch and stop terrorist acts. It does mean that we need a complement to enforcement. Prevention, as they say, is the best medicine. And the best form of prevention is to eliminate or reduce the conditions that lead to the frustration, hopelessness, and anger that help breed terrorists.

John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” I believe Kennedy was correct. I would augment his statement with a corollary: Those who help oppress a people will inevitably be the targets of their rage.

When Iranian students toppled the Shah in 1979, they rightly perceived the United States as the sponsor of the corrupt and unelected dictator who’d oppressed them for decades. That did not help their attitudes towards the US. It stoked their anger and helped build a new regime that fundamentally rejected the US and the western way of life and which has spent the past 30 years training, funding, and arming anti-American terrorists.

If Egyptian protesters do manage to topple Mubarak (which, as an American with roots in Egypt, I hope they do), they will have every reason to be hostile to the US. That hostility is unlikely to translate into better governance or a better ally. American complicity in oppressing democracy produces blow-back in the form of anti-American sentiment and anti-American action.

Mubarak poster

It’s time to stop thinking short term. It’s time to stop placing military alliances, access to economic resources, or even peace treaties above the spread of the principles of liberty and self-determination. It’s time for America to place its principles above its short term self interests. And if the US does so, I firmly believe that it will enhance its standing in the world, its safety, and the condition of hundreds of millions of men and women.

In the long run, democracies make the best friends and allies. In the long run, encouraging democracy – through free and fair elections, through personal freedom of expression, through the establishment of a free and uncensored press – is the best foreign policy investment any free nation can make.

I look forward to the day when an American administration makes encouraging worldwide liberty and democracy – for both pragmatic and principled reasons – the #1 US foreign policy goal.

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8 Responses to Turmoil in Egypt Shows Shortsightedness of US Foreign Policy

  1. Katha Dalton says:

    Thank you Mez. Hear hear!

  2. Amy says:

    Thank you. Great piece, quite thoughtful.

  3. Anova says:

    This is a great article. And unfortunately, our government does this and the US people are not supportive of this type of policy. So, I hope that the Egyptian people, when they finally get control of their own country, will not hold hostility towards the American people. We are in support of what they are doing. But, the looting has got to stop. They need to pull together. And, I’m glad that the US has not sent our troops over there, as we tend to do, to try to retain stability. We need to mind our own business sometimes.

  4. caroline says:

    Your proselyting overlooks the fact that historically all peoples have had to fight for their rights, and that revolution is, apparently, inevitable process to gain these rights. The US cannot grant people the right to freedom of speech (for example). We all know that freedom of speech is nearly a constant battle in the states. You can take the false affirmations that you quote, made by Clinton and Biden, as testimony to that.
    That said, I am not in favor of the US supporting dictators, but was it the particular stipulation, by the US, that Mubarak kill dissenters?
    I have been to Egypt, many people there ‘are’ hostile to Americans and westerners in general (shouting epithets, burning down people’s hotels), yet, many are friendly.
    I am in favor of fostering democracy there, but it first has to be their own popular choice and it is that choice that makes the change strong.

    • Ramez Naam says:

      Caroline: Thanks for the comments.

      I agree that the US can’t impose democracy on any other country unilaterally. It just wouldn’t work.

      That said, in Egypt we’ve been doing the opposite, by directly funding a dictator who oppresses his people.

      How can the people choose democracy if they don’t have a free press? If they can’t criticize their government in public without being arrested? If they don’t have a fair judiciary?

      There’s a lot the US can do to encourage dictatorships to lay the groundwork for democracy. The choice will always be in the hands of the people there, though.

  5. caroline says:

    That said, I am not in favor of the US supporting dictators, but was it the particular stipulation, by the US, that Mubarak kill dissenters?
    ….or that he create the other bad conditions in Egypt?

  6. Ramez Naam says:

    It wasn’t at US directive, but it was with US consent and US funding.

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