Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Caution Light Is On

Doyle McManus has a rather odd column posted this morning on the Obama administration's response to the turmoil in Egypt. On the one hand, he seems to be decrying the slow response of the White House to the events unfolding in Cairo, but at the same time he notes that American intervention in "bringing democracy" to other nations hasn't really worked out that well (as in Iraq and Afghanistan), so the caution is understandable.

In Egypt and elsewhere, the United States has tried to promote democracy and preserve stability at the same time, but when the two goals conflict — as they often do, at least in the short run — Washington has usually opted for stability first.

Even now, with Egypt in tumult, the Obama administration is trying to preserve whatever stability it can. The premier U.S. ally in the Middle East, Israel, is frantic at the prospect of an Egypt ruled by populists or Islamists who might turn hostile after three decades of peace. There is also the question of what message U.S. support for the demonstrators would send to its other allies in the region, most of which aren't shining examples of democracy. Kings in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, military strongmen in Yemen and Algeria want to know whether they are next, and whether their alliances with Washington will mean anything in the crunch. ...

In fact, the administration is still pursuing stability in Egypt rather than democracy at any cost. It has allied itself directly with the Egyptian military, not with ElBaradei or anyone else in the opposition. It's still aiming for an essentially conservative goal, an "orderly transition" to democracy overseen by the armed forces, which want to keep their privileges — and have no appetite for war with Israel, U.S. officials believe.

Implicit in this part of the argument is the historical policies of previous administrations. Stability at all costs, especially in the oil-rich countries (the Middle East and Latin America) has always been a goal, which in the past was frequently tied to anti-communism fervor. For Obama to suddenly withdraw all support from a dictator we've been propping up for decades would seem capricious and quite probably weak.

The old model is wearing thin, as we've discovered the past ten years: it hasn't bought us any real friends and has raised more than a few enemies. But going into another country with bombs and tanks to pull a dictator from his hidey-hole hasn't exactly been too productive either. I think this is the place where Barack Obama's caution begins to make a little sense.

While the US cannot forever shield despots for the sake of stability, it also cannot unilaterally determine what is best for another nation's citizens. McManus finally concludes essentially the same thing:

So it's fitting that the Obama administration is spending so much time being modest about its power to determine Egypt's future. It may be a useful argument, in that it shields the United States from bearing full responsibility for the outcome. But as Henry A. Kissinger used to say, it has the added advantage of being true.

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