One of the criticisms being made of President Obama’s Egypt policy is his willingness to betray a “friend,” Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak, it is claimed, has been a friend of the US for thirty years. It is somehow ignoble to turn against him now.
That view is fundamentally flawed. First of all, if alliances in world politics were akin to friendships, then we’d never be close to someone like Mubarak. Egypt tortures, abuses and oppresses. Mubarak has amassed an empire worth over $70 billion, even as Egyptians overall get poorer. He runs Egypt like an organized criminal enterprise, with no regard for human rights.
The US has supported him because the realities of world politics made it in our interest to support him. Egypt recognized Israel’s existence, helped the US in a number of ways, and tried to prove itself a good ally. In exchange Egypt got billions of dollars of aid, a massive quid pro quo. So we owe Egypt nothing. They’ve done things to benefit us, we’ve paid them in response, be that right or wrong.
If we determine it’s not in our interest to support Egypt any more, then we owe a dictatorial corrupt thug like Mubarak no more respect than was due Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic. If it is not in our interest any more to support such a government, we should be breathing a sigh of relief and celebrating the fact we no longer have to have such a horrible ally. Good riddance!
But is it in our interest? Some people claim yes — that our support of dictators in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, and Kuwait could be undermined. Perhaps these brutal regimes won’t trust the US any more and be less malleable to US pressure. Spare me. The Saudis are hard nosed and have long been willing to counter the US and act against US interest, especially in terms of oil deals with China and support for extremists. There are only two reasons support for dictators could be seen as in our interest: Israel and Oil.
The biggest argument against support for Mubarak being in our interest is the fact that with most of the Arab world under 25, vast change in the region is inevitable. The idea that tottering corrupt regimes will be able to hold on to power in this new age of twitter feeds, al jazeera and social media is akin to those who said in November 1989 that communism could persist in East Europe despite the fall of the Berlin Wall. The changes are real and will grow in scope. To embrace the dictators as they fall would be suicidal. It would put the US clearly on the side of tyranny and against democracy and liberty. Moreover, if the dictatorships are too comfortable that the US will support them no matter what, they’ll fight against any kind of reform, thereby making it likely that when their inevitable collapse comes, it won’t be peaceful.
Being on the right side of history is important, especially if we want to have solid relations with the successor regimes to these dictatorships, and work with them to support a modern, progressive Arab world, and not one that sinks back into extremist fundamentalist religious belief. We don’t want to feed the flames of groups like Muslim Brotherhood, who would love to point at the US and say, “they are the reason for all the suffering and oppression.” So there is nothing wrong with cutting Mubarak lose. We paid for his assistance, but it’s more like a man who stops going to a prostitute once he finds a mate. Mubarak was a whore.
Yet Israel and oil are legitimate concerns. We don’t want to risk all out war in the region, or another round of Arab-Israeli fighting. We don’t want to empower groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, or do anything to aid Islamic extremism. We certainly do not want instability to drive up the cost of oil and undercut any recovery or restructuring of the national and global economy. Not only is it moral unacceptable to say we have to support dictators ad infinitum in order to support those interests, but given the changes sweeping the region, that policy isn’t going to work.
There are no clear answers, but its a good bet the youth in the Arab world aren’t striving for freedom just so they can go fight a war against Israel. That isn’t their generation’s battle. Stability in oil markets certainly doesn’t require dictatorship. The claim that all hell will break loose if we don’t stand by corrupt dictators is dubious. It represents taking what is a possible outcome and vastly over stating its probability.
Ultimately the US needs to stand by its principles. Yes, at times we make compromises, the world is such that one can’t be a starry eyed idealist. But compromise cannot be so deep that the principles drown or become unrecognizable. That’s what has happened in the Mideast. For a half century we’ve supported dictators, aided corruption, and rationalized it because it got us cheap oil good for the economy. Dictators have made it easy for Israel not to make the hard decisions required to finally make peace with their fellow inhabitants of Palestine. We’ve become addicted to supporting dictators because it makes the hard issues go away. The oil flows.
But this no longer works, Tunisia and Egypt are first signs of the coming change. We have to first make clear that Mubarak is not a friend, no matter how much our countries worked together the last thirty years. Moreover, we need to have a foreign policy that achieves our interests without requiring decades long support of corrupt tyrants. We need to support the growing voices calling for change in Africa and the Arab world.
Young people in Egypt and beyond want a 21st century with democracy, human rights, and hope. If the US rejects their cause, then what kind of country have we become?