The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which have sent reverberations throughout the Arab world, reveal some uncomfortable truths about US foreign policy. The contortions of the Obama administration, caught between its desire to stand by a dictator in Cairo who has been a loyal ally and its desire to channel a revolution that could define the future of the region, are replays we have seen over and over. Rhetorically, America trumpets democracy and human rights. In reality, we ally ourselves with repressive dictatorships: Cuba’s Batista, Nicaragua’s Somoza, Chile’s Pinochet, South Africa’s apartheid regime, Iran’s shah, Indonesia’s Suharto and many more. When the people finally revolt, Washington flounders, usually concerned more about shoring up the regime than about supporting democracy.
Worse, because foreign policy is dominated by our military and intelligence agencies, our ties with these regimes tend to involve deep complicity with the security services that torture and kill domestic opposition. We are widely—and accurately—viewed in much of the third world not as neutral or distant supporters of freedom but as the bulwark of dictatorships. We train their police, arm their militaries, base our troops on their soil. American people and culture are widely admired abroad, but our government is just as widely despised.
This dismal pattern leaves us clueless when democratic movements arise. As we scramble to identify new leaders, we face understandable suspicion of our motives. Despite our ritual celebration of civil society, we underinvest in the civilian side of aid. In Egypt, US officials lacked contacts with many of the grassroots groups leading the revolt. It should not be surprising that our call now for an orderly transition is widely viewed in Egypt as an attempt to buy time in the hope that the demonstrations will die out.
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The whole world is watching what America does now, as the Mubarak regime, buttressed by $1.3 billion in annual US military aid, struggles to counter the most inspiring democratic upsurge in decades. The Obama administration can follow Washington tradition by undermining the democratic movement in the interest of “stability.” Or it can practice what Obama preached so eloquently in Cairo in June 2009 and support the will of the Egyptian people—as expressed by the hundreds of thousands courageously taking to the streets in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities—to finally be rid of Mubarak and his cronies, the three-decade state of emergency, the brutal security establishment and replace them with a new Constitution and free and fair elections. If Washington were to do this—and if it were to help sustain a democratic transition by marshaling international support for economic recovery—America would win the praise of millions throughout the Arab world. And that simple act of justice and decency would likely do more to stanch support for extremist Islam than a thousand Special Forces operations.
The uprisings in the Middle East expose the utter folly of the neoconservative doctrine, championed by George W. Bush, that democracy can be imposed through a gun barrel. Bush’s catastrophic Iraq War unleashed sectarian struggles that debilitate Iraqi society to this day. And Obama’s escalation of Bush’s Afghan war has us propping up a regime so corrupt and incompetent that it has revived the hated Taliban. To be sure, popular uprisings offer no guarantees. They can end badly, as we learned in Iran. But the alternatives—presuming to impose democracy through military force, or standing in its way by supporting dictatorship—are unacceptable.
We desperately need new national security thinking, and a new global strategy. We would do better to spend far less time strengthening militaries—at home and abroad—and far more time supporting democratic governance, civil society and economic development. We should understand that to be effective, our foreign policy must complement reforms at home, ones that improve democracy, enhance human security and spur economic opportunity. America is exceptional not because we are rich but because we were founded on a revolutionary ideal: that people have the right to govern themselves. And yet we have become a status quo nation, too often invested in maintaining oppressive power. The revolution sweeping the Middle East suggests we had better think very hard about that contradiction.