Two Tightly Coiled, Steaming, Piles of OpEd On Egypt

Everyone has an opinion about what the future of Egypt will be, and to some degree or another everyone is likely to be wrong. Oh sure there will be some who have the outlines correct but it is all but impossible to predict the something a inherently chaotic as a popular uprising in a long time dictatorship. This, however, does not stop a couple of Washington Post columnists from trying to use the time to prop up the discredited and slap-dash Bush administration “freedom agenda”

I know I sound like a broken record (am I dating myself by using that phrase?) , but it is the main trick of the modern conservative movement and the Republican Party to spin all of its initiatives in Orwellian names and half truths, and the freedom agenda is just one more example. The idea was that we’d go and invade a couple or a handful of Middle Eastern countries, whip a little democracy on them and we would have nice democratic Islamic allies like Turkey. A really nifty idea that would rid us of a lot of problems and secure the supply of Middle Eastern oil for us and our allies.

Of course this was simplistic post hoc horse crap, designed to disguise the fact that we had in fact invaded Iraq with no evidence of weapons of mass destruction and had no idea (at the time) how the frack we were going to untangle ourselves from it. This little bit of foreign policy idiocy lead us to push the Palestinians for elections and then have to cut ties with them when they elected a government that we had decided was a terrorist group.

Today in the Washington Post Richard Cohen and Michael Gerson, a couple of long time Bush foreign policy supporters, use their columns to warn us about the possible down side of a popular uprising in the Middle East, bash the Obama administration and, oh by the way, tout the wonders of the ‘freedom agenda” all in two 1000 words of tightly coiled and steaming crap.

Mr. Gerson, makes his point is this paragraph:

The lesson from these events is that America should be anticipating democratic traditions long before a crisis makes them urgent – trying to encourage the leadership and institutions that will make eventual change less traumatic. These efforts in Egypt were halfhearted and inconsistent. Someday, absent a shift in policy, we are likely to say the same of China. In the modern world, it is a short distance from Tahrir Square to Tiananmen. An active democracy promotion strategy – engaging authoritarian regimes while cultivating the leaders and parties that may replace them – is alternately criticized as paternalistic, unrealistic and hypocritical. Until a moment such as this, when it is revealed as the essential, practical work of American diplomacy.

Again he goes to the Conservative “good as far as it goes in this instance” thinking. After all who can say that it would not be a good idea for the United States to promote democracy everywhere in the world? The thing this pleasant seeming bromide misses is that promoting democracy in dictatorial regimes is the same thing as supporting rebel groups. Many times when fighting a dictatorial regime groups resort to terrorism. Strikes designed to destabilize the country and provide the impetus for the people to throw off their shackles. It all looks good from the long lens of history, but in the short run you’re siding with some folks who are pretty unsavory. What Gerson is promoting is the idea that we can push for regime change.

We like democracy here in the United States, we believe it is the best way to govern a free people, but this idea of full democracy with universal suffrage is very, very young. We didn’t even give women the right to vote until 1920, less than 100 years ago and during that time we still have repressed minority voting and frankly continue to do so today, though to a lesser degree.

Mr. Cohen takes another tact. He brings out the scary idea that we should not be happy that the people of Egypt are trying to throw off an autocratic regime because they might go in the direction of Islamic Fundamentalism. He brings up the Muslim Brotherhood and then reaches back 54 years to one of the leading lights in the Brotherhood at that time, Sayyid Qutb. Mr. Qutb was a prolific writer and was a pretty nasty piece of work. He was very concerned about U.S. morality, in the swinging ‘60’s and wrote a lot of stuff denouncing us. He wrote some truly heinous stuff about black people and, of course, he hated Israel. About what you would expect from an Egyptian fundamentalist in the ‘60’s. He also was hung in 1966 and consequently has not written anything new since.

This is the stalking horse that Cohen uses to make us afraid of the idea that the people of Egypt might form a government that has democratic form but is not liberal in any sense we would recognize. He is concerned that there will not be protections for minorities and women, and that a newly Islamic government (if that is what they set up) would repudiate the peace treaty with Israel.

Cohen ends with this waffling paean to “realpolitik”:

Those Americans and others who cheer the mobs in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, who clamor for more robust anti-Mubarak statements from the Obama administration, would be wise to let Washington proceed slowly. Hosni Mubarak is history. He has stayed too long, been too recalcitrant – and, for good reason, let his fear of the future ossify the present. Egypt and the entire Middle East are on the verge of convulsing. America needs to be on the right side of human rights. But it also needs to be on the right side of history. This time, the two may not be the same.

My maternal Grandfather had a saying “Let’s not run out to meet Trouble, it might not be coming to our house”. This is a saying that Mr. Cohen could probably benefit from. We don’t know the future and while we have seen an adverse outcome in terms of democratic principles applied in Gaza, that does not mean that it will happen again in Egypt. It is possible that we won’t love the form of government that emerges when (because let’s face it, the question is when not if) the Mubarak government falls. But you know what? It is not our call and it never was.

For all of Gerson’s talk of democracy promotion and Cohen’s worry about the next government being worse the reality is we propped up a dictatorship with arms for decades. It grew out of a desire to try to end the cycle of wars with Israel, and like all things in this life it seemed like a good idea at the time. Times have changed and if there is a fundamental value that the U.S. holds it is that a people should govern themselves. That means we can suggest our style of democracy (which almost no one in the world other than us actually uses) and we can push for human rights, but we can’t make anyone do anything. At least we can’t if we’re going to stay true to the ideal that they should choose for themselves.

It looks as though the people of Egypt will choose for themselves and we will have to figure out how to deal with what they choose.

The floor is yours

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