by Walter Russell Mead at The American Interest:
“The Obama administration is now living through one of the oldest and most difficult recurring problems in American foreign policy: what do you do when revolution breaks out in an allied country?
The only clue history offers is not an encouraging one: there is often no satisfactory resolution of the dilemmas revolutions present.
In 1789 Americans watched the progress of revolution in their closest ally. King Louis XVI, whose decision to back the colonists with money, ships and troops forced Britain to recognize American independence, was tottering on his throne.
The French Revolution (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
In 1917, as the United States moved toward entry into World War One, Americans watched the February Revolution drive Tsar Nicholas II from his absolute rule in one of our key allies in the conflict we were about to begin.
In 1948-49 the Truman administration watched as communist forces systematically defeated the nationalists in the Chinese Revolution. At the dawn of the Cold War, the most populous country in the world fell under communist rule.
Ten years later the Eisenhower administration watched Fidel Castro seize power in Cuba and begin the process that would betray the hopes of Cubans and turn this neighboring state into a firm ally of the Soviet Union.
And in 1978 the Carter administration watched helplessly as mounting public anger in Iran drove one of our important Cold War allies from the throne.
None of these precedents will cheer up the White House. In all these cases, the United States failed to find an effective policy response to the revolution, and each time the foreign revolution created thorny political problems for the sitting president. George Washington’s administration was poisoned by infighting between supporters and opponents of revolutionary France. Woodrow Wilson sent troops to try to suppress the October Revolution in Russia — a measure that did nothing to help him as opposition to his post war plans grew and his personal popularity declined. The Truman administration was politically sapped by the deepening backlash over its alleged indifference to the communist triumph in China — and the victorious Chinese communists supported North Korea’s invasion of the South, forcing Washington into the devastating and politically ruinous Korean War. The fear of looking weak after the Bay of Pigs and the establishment of a Soviet beachhead in the western hemisphere contributed to the decisions by JFK and LBJ to commit themselves more heavily to South Vietnam. The Iranian hostage crisis sapped Jimmy Carter’s political strength and his failure either to liberate the hostages or to negotiate successfully for their release helped Ronald Reagan defeat him in his 1980 quest for re-election.
So one lesson of history seems clear: President Obama should brace himself. When revolutions in friendly foreign countries break out, American presidents frequently face unresolvable dilemmas. Sometimes there aren’t any good answers and no matter what you do, you will suffer.
Not that snarky pundits will cut you any breaks. Journalists and professors are almost always sure that there is an easy answer to various tough policy problems and that any failures by our political leaders reflect incompetence or malevolence. The Obama administration may well fail (indeed it probably will fail) to find an elegant method of handling the crisis in Egypt — but the world is a complicated place and all of our options in Egypt have serious drawbacks.
Revolution is a constant in modern life, and especially in the many societies around the world where rigid political systems and authoritarian governments make peaceful and gradual change impossible. Today we are watching the progress of what increasingly looks like a revolution in Egypt, and once again an important ally of the United States is falling from power in the face of widespread dissatisfaction with his rule.
In most cases, revolutions happen to those who deserve them. Louis XVI had many good human qualities, but the system he ruled was too corrupt, too dysfunctional and too out of touch to endure. The tsarist autocracy in Russia was both incompetent and vile. The Shah’s vicious security apparatus and his wanton disregard for the traditional values of the peoples of Iran united the whole country against him.
President Mubarak is of this ilk and from a human rights perspective any comeuppance he gets will be richly deserved. Although the Mubarak era has significant accomplishments to its credit, the Egyptian system is dismally corrupt, incompetently managed, and rests on unspeakable brutality. It is past time for this system to go, and when the Egyptians saw the cynical preparations underway to install President Mubarak’s son as their next leader, they exercised what our founding fathers would surely consider their natural and inalienable right of revolution in trying to send him away.
Americans should never forget that our own system rests on two acts of revolution. The first was the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in which the British (with enthusiastic support from most colonists) kicked out an abusive monarch and transferred the throne to rulers who promised to respect the rights of Parliament and people. The second of course was the American Revolution when we rejected Parliament’s attempt to rule us without our consent. The United States has revolution in its DNA and America’s deepest values tell us that revolutions like those in France, Russia, Iran and Egypt are the last defense of humanity against the establishment or the perpetuation of tyranny.
All of this is true; none of this helps American governments figure out what to do when revolutionary upheaval breaks out in a key foreign ally. It is almost never the right choice to help the challenged government cling to power by using American forces and resources to crush the uprising.
Yet distancing ourselves from a weakening ally is not always cost free. President Mubarak is not the only ruler with a questionable human rights record that the United States works with in this messy world. If the US simply abandons him at the first sign of trouble, what kind of ally do we look like to our other smelly friends? Do they start looking toward countries like China or Iran whose backing might be more reliable? Will that make us happy? Will it advance human rights?”
Comment: It is in my blood by education and common sense to believe in democracy, not just the voting kind popularity contests, but clean meaningful elections selecting ones leaders…..whether a culture is deemed ready for them or not…..
“Being ready for democracy” is a ludicrous concept. Something lefty college professors might smoke this over, but it has little realistic value when a population in our modern world is stirring for change……After more than two centuries of democratic institutions and a ethos which commands its citizens to be democratic, (until this recent generation) many Americans aren’t ready for democracy in their own country…..President Obama being an example. Democracy interferes with their demand and power to make people do what these leftwing power people command.
One million citizens of a nation rallying for change in the streets is impressive. Yet, Egypt has a population of, and I am guessing, 70,000,000. Who knows what the results would be if a free and honest election were to be taken tomorrow, whether Mr. Mubarak should remain or go as the nation’s ‘sovereign’.
I was and am critical of Obama’s arrogant demand for Mubarak to leave Egypt “NOW”….this nose -in-the-air college grad student who belongs to these American leftists who politick against sending democratic “seeds” throughout the impaled world, denouncing America for impressing upon others our ‘primitive’ Protestant Christian ethic of democracy and competitiveness. Obama is good at staging matters.
Yet, it is good to see that the president is touched at least a teeny bit, by this Protestant America tenet, by pandering democracy to the young bucks in the streets of Cairo….the million or more of them….and their demands for democracy, whatever they think democracy means, and the removal of their president, Hosni Mubarak..
Obama and his fellow Democrats of the Leftwing variety are very talented in the art of pandering.
Yet, as a democrat to my bones, I was proud that president Barack said the American thing, but my brain told me at the time “I don’t think this is a wise statement to be made in public. It may sing well among the demonstrators, but not with those in the Egyptian governing network who have to do something about protecting its population which is not bellowing out in the streets.”
Why would Mubarak and others in his government want to demonstrate to the world they take orders like dogs from their American masters?
Of course voting, that is, democracy’s essential pagentry is more effective when some democratic institutions are place and mean something.
Barack and American victory should be the establishment of democracy in Egypt……making it clear that this is an American purpose in modern life……SHARE DECMOCRACY. That is one reason I really like G.W.Bush over his shortcomings.
I think I would have referred Obama to keep his public mouth quiet for once, and work with Egyptian authorities, including Mubarak, to assist them rather than pretend to dictate to them what the Egyptian government should do.
But, Obama has never shown any interest in working with folks not of his clone.
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