I remember a senior American diplomat arriving at the FCO in 1992 and describing just how busy he was helping get US food aid to a Russia left reeling after the abrupt collapse of communism. We genteel Brits were startled when he described himself as ‘drinkin’ from a pressure-hose’. The imagery!
Still, we’re all now firmly attached to the nozzle of the pressure-hose gushing out all those articles, comments, Tweets and everything else about Egypt and what it means.
This one by Leon Wieseltier caught my eye. It drills down into what is surely a strategic failure by the Obama Administration, namely surrendering any serious leadership on the subject of ‘freedom’ for fear of putting at risk its softer post-Bush outreach to the so-called Muslim world.
It has some superb passages:
The wholesale repudiation of Bush’s foreign policy included the rejection of anything resembling his “freedom agenda,” which looked mainly like an excuse for war. But whatever one’s views of the Iraq war, it really does not seem too much to ask of American liberals that they think a little less crudely about democratization—not only about its moral significance but also about its strategic significance.
… It is a common error that prudence is thought about the short-term; the proper temporal horizon for prudential thinking is distant and long. Realism does not equip one for an adequate appreciation of the historical force of the democratic longing.
In this sense, realism is singularly unrealistic. It seems smart only as long as the dictators remain undisturbed by their people, and then suddenly it seems incredibly stupid.
It was a terrible mistake for Obama to make democratization seem like an “imposition,” with its imperialist implications, and to conflate it with military invasion.
The promotion of democracy is a policy of support for indigenous Egyptian, or Arab, or Muslim democrats who are just as authentic as indigenous Egyptian, or Arab, or Muslim autocrats and theocrats, and certainly more deserving of American respect. It is a policy—to borrow Gibbs’s words—of taking sides—specifically, of taking sides with peoples against regimes.
It does not create dissidents, in some sort of ugly-American conspiracy; it finds them, and then it assists them, because they are in need of assistance, and because assisting them expresses our values and our interests.
This is spot on. The astounding failure of Washington (with Brussels and EU capitals meekly tucking in behind) to articulate a strong moral and political case for regime change in Iran when so many Iranians actually wanted something like our form of pluralism has left ‘the West’ floundering in response to the upheavals in north Africa now.
The main problem for us and indeed for Egypt is that insofar as there is any coherent world-view in Egypt, it appears to be yet more Muslims-as-victims lumpen Islamistic ideology. The prospects of the tumult leading in the short term to something like a ‘normal’ democratic new form of government in Egypt must be close to nil.
That said, for decades too long we have nodded deferentially at the different dreary national socialistic regimes sprawled across the Middle East, somehow caught between the racist view that ‘Arabs can’t run a modern open society’ and a fear of anything which might threaten ‘stability’.
The end of the Cold War in Europe was the moment for trying to offer a new reform path to the Middle East as we did over many years to communist Europe, but too much attention was sucked into the Yugoslavia fiasco.
So if anything the problem is not that Arabs/Muslims of the region have been helpless victims of Western manipulation – the problem is that they have largely been left by us to rot in sub-standard autocracies on their own terms, give or take huge sums of defence and other support thrown at Egypt by Washington for many years. What a dismal return on all that investment.
Here is one other article on Egypt which again strikes me as hitting many right targets, this time by Paul Goodman at Conservative Home:
Imagine a series of Muslim Brotherhood-led governments in the Middle East. Would they be more or less likely than present ones to promote equal opportunities and religious minorities? To pursue economic reform and, yes, civil liberties? To seek a two-state solution for Israel/Palestine?
To back Hamas or the Palestinian Authority? To shrug at Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons? To support the Taliban in Afghanistan, where our troops are serving? To be better disposed to liberal democracies, as they pursue the integration of state and religion? To back and fund Islamists in Britain who support attacks on civilians or on our allies?
He also quotes Sir D Plumbly, formerly HM Ambassador to Cairo:
"Obviously, it is desirable to talk to Islamists if we can…But I also detect a tendency for us to be drawn towards engagement for its own sake, to confuse "engaging with the Islamic world" with "engaging with Islamism", and to play down the very real downsides for us in terms of the Islamists’ likely foreign and social policies, should they actually achieve power in Egypt."
Still, that looks like the safe way to bet. Let’s conclude gloomily on that note with Brian Micklethwait who as always sums it all up deftly:
My understanding is that this is not one of those enjoyable melodramas where there are Good Guys and Bad Guys, when we here in the comfortable seats (the ones outside Egypt) can all cheer the Good Guys and jeer the Bad Guys.
My understanding is that there are the Bad Guys as in the government, the Good Guys as in the people who would just love to be living in a nice civilised country which respects human rights and where there is dignity and freedom and whatever is the Egyptian for apple pie, with a thriving economy for all etc. (with no Jews or Americans screwing everything up) …
and then there are the Other Bad Guys, aka the Muslim Brotherhood, who would like nothing better than to see Egypt reduced to ruins, to take charge of the ruins, and then to ruin the ruins a whole hell of a lot more.
The Good Guys are now so angry with the first lot of Bad Guys that they either don’t realise or don’t care that they may be playing right into the hands of the Other Bad Guys.
Basically, we in Europe are like a group of wealthy homeowners on the smart side of the pond who have watched with disdainful unconcern the dull-witted mafia families in the slums some way across the water. Now all the mafia houses are collapsing and we grasp – too late – that the noisy violent disarray could easily affect our property values, or worse our way of life itself.
Where is Diplomatic Judgement in all this, I wonder, from the Suez crisis onwards?