The US Must Not Be on the Wrong Side of History
Do you remember when the United States stood proudly for liberty and democracy? When countries looked over the Atlantic at the Statue of Liberty and knew that if they wanted to embrace independent democratic institutions and free and fair elections, the United States would be there to support them? When the US was a beacon that inspired campaigners for greater democracy behind the Iron Curtain or under apartheid South Africa, during the emergence of the post-dictatorship democracies in Latin America, or the victory of liberals in Iran in the nineties?
Even during the noughties — an era of foreign policy calamities for the United States — George W. Bush's stated rhetoric in support of the Iraq War was to ferment the spread of democracy in the Middle East. Even most of us who disagreed that this would happen accepted the value of the intention: That if it did happen, it would be good for the citizens of the region.
Will this reputation survive President Obama's administration? Given the noises now coming from the White House and the State Department, America is on course to relinquish not just its global economic predominance (to its rising rival China) over the coming decades, but maybe also its moral authority as a beacon of liberty and democracy for the region as well.
The last few weeks have seen protests against high food prices, stagnation, corruption, and incumbents across the Middle East. Tunisians brought down the government. Now the Egyptians want to do the same. There are reports of unrest in Jordan and Yemen as well.
Democratic forces are on the march. Just like the democratic domino effect the US was hoping for before the invasion of Iraq, Egyptians have been inspired by their cousins in Tunisia where they are hoping to repeat the exit of their premier. However, unlike the toppling of Saddam, this regime change, if it happened, would be completely homegrown.
The people demonstrating on the street do not seem to be interested in promises or reform. They simply want Mubarak to step aside. The probability of his son Gamal taking over now seems highly improbable.
Governments across the region are twitchy. They are nervously watching events and plotting ingenious ways to pacify their people lest their country be the next domino to fall. Kuwait, for example, has just announced that it will be distributing more than five billion dollars in cash and free food over the next 14 months to counter the effects of inflation. That's $3,580 to every citizen for food, or $3,580 to each citizen to ease the government's chances of remaining in power, depending on how you look at it.
At its best, this popular anti-incumbency fermentation of popular feeling could be just the kind of democratic awakening in the Middle East that George W Bush dreamed of. At its worst, it is a sign that across the Middle East, Arabs are tired of autocracy.
And yet, what is the Obama administration's response? Statements from the US have thus far been uninspiring: President Obama has asked Mubarak to "deliver on promises of better democracy and greater economic opportunity" and emphasized "the need to make reforms." Mubarak has only had 30 years to deliver on these promises already.
Maybe President Obama has not been fully briefed by the CIA as to the seriousness of events on the ground. This is, after all, the same CIA which failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union — one of the most cataclysmic events of the last century.
The US is playing a very dangerous game by not supporting the people's wishes and facilitating the smooth exit of these leaders. This is not just a question of values. History shows that getting these decisions wrong can alienate populations for a generation or more.
Remember the fall of the Shah in Iran in 1979? By supporting the Shah and his oppression, the US alienated an entire nation which decades later, still poses one of the biggest strategic challenge to the US. Or closer to home, the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista of Cuba in 1959? The backlash against the US backed Batista led to 50 years of Castro who has seen over half a dozen US Presidents come and go. Both these names should be ringing alarm bells.
President Obama should accept that the men and women on the streets in Egypt are there in sympathy with the core US values of freedom and democracy. He should support them, and start to play the right role in facilitating free and fair elections. He showed that he could drop allies when they were no longer useful — as Stanley McChrystal can attest.
It is time for the president to get off the fence and stand up for freedom and democracy. The US must not be allowed to be on the wrong side of history.
Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.
This article was published by the Huffington Post on January 31, 2011: