Recently there has been a considerable debate among pundits, bloggers and wonks about where America should stand on the issue of democracy in Egypt, and for that matter in the Middle East and elsewhere. That debate has been fought often as a struggle between to poles: interests verses values.
On one side those that emphasize our “interests” appear to be saying we should stick with the old order and Mubarak. They seek stability and predictability above democracy and the aspirations of the people in the streets of Egypt. They say that are in the long tradition of the “realist” school of foreign policy. Yet in other contexts the conservatives that espouse this view about Egypt have criticized the Obama administration for not giving enough of a push for democracy especially in places like China, Cuba, Russia, and North Korea.
The other side are often the “values” adherents who argue that America should stand for democracy and human rights, and that in the Egyptian case America has stood for too long on the side of authoritarian rule, which has not been in America’s fundamental values. They are prepared to note that in the long run standing for the forces of democracy results in a better outcome for America than a long record of catering to despotic regimes.
Let me add at once that some observers find themselves on both sides of this dichotomy. Some realists can acknowledge that siding with the popular forces of democracy will serve American interests best. Values supporters also argue along realist lines, but they also are not impressed by the “fear” mongering that some advocates of “interests/stability” throw out to justify their desire to keep Mubarak.
In this debate the “values realists” seem to have the better side of the debate – at last in the long run. As this is being written the streets of Cairo are crowded with demonstrators that grow rather than diminish. There is growing anger against the old order which seems defiant against giving up power. America’s stance seems each day to have a different emphasize as we waver between the “values” and the “realistic” sides of this debate. But the one clear voice President Obama has had is the only one that makes sense– and that is we want both a change to democracy and we want it to be peaceable.
Today one of The New York Time’s headlines says “U.S. Faces Stark Choice as an Ally Clings to His Office,” that states the conundrum that has been is and will be played out again and again in region after region and nation after nation. It will be tested in Jordan, Sudan/Southern Sudan/Darfur, Cuba, Haiti, a host of Middle East countries including Iran, Iraq and even Afghanistan.
These will be uncertain times, they will not be always played out in peaceful ways as has been true with the deaths already in Tunisia and Egypt. We will not be able always or even often to control these changes. Already, some right wing voices are starting to wrongly criticize Obama for these events saying that he has weaken American power sround the world. That is exactly the wrong conclusion. Because of Obama in at least standing for democracy, we are in fact in a stronger position than if our response were a “George Bush/Nixon” response of blind adherence to failing repressive regimes that do our bidding.
America has historically done better when we followed the tenants of our nation’s founding rather than played a game of “uber” realism and sided with the despots and corrupt regimes. This is not without risks, and that has to be acknowledge in a case by case analysis, but being with the forces of decency, human rights, and justice remains America’s preferred indeed right choice.