ASCF Report | 9.4.13
By Alan W. Dowd
Standing up for democracy
while standing by friends and allies who are less than democratic is one of the
great tests of American statecraft. Regrettably, it’s a test the current
administration is failing. In fact, it sometimes seems more
dangerous to be Washington’s friend than its foe, as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak
learned in 2011, Mubarak’s successor Mohamed Morsi learned last month and
Morsi’s successor Abdel Sisi is learning
President Ronald Reagan
offered an example of how America can stay true to its friends and its ideals.
It all begins with having a set of core beliefs to guide U.S. foreign policy.
What Reagan’s example teaches his successors is that the
best way—perhaps the only way—to balance American interests and American ideals
is to keep an eye on the big picture. For Reagan, the big picture was defeating
the Soviet Empire—America’s main enemy after World War II.
Operating from that framework, Reagan backed pro-democracy
and anti-communist movements (the two were not always one in the same) in Poland
and Eastern Europe, Afghanistan and Africa, El Salvador and Nicaragua. All the
while, Reagan supported partners like Turkey and Spain as they struggled
through difficult transitions to democracy. He stood by South Korea, Saudi Arabia
and Egypt, even though they were less than democratic, recognizing that the
alternative was worse. And as the
tide of free government swept over the Philippines, Reagan showed how to stand
by a friend and stand for freedom.
When Corazaon Aquino defeated
America’s longtime anti-communist bulwark Ferdinand Marcos at the ballot box,
Reagan appealed to Marcos to accept the results and refrain from using force to
stay in power—and then provided America’s old friend a dignified way out. “I
wanted to make sure we did not treat Marcos as shabbily as our country had
treated another former ally, the shah of Iran,” Reagan later recalled. Reagan’s
solution: a one-way ticket to Hawaii.
For Obama, the big picture should be defeating jihadism—America’s
main enemy since 9/11—keeping in mind that old maxim, “The enemy of my enemy is
To be sure, this might create moral mismatches from time to
time, just as it did during the Cold War, but U.S. presidents have to weigh
these against the alternatives. “Our
historic desire for all men and women to share in our tradition of individual
human rights and freedoms,” as Reagan said in critiquing President Jimmy Carter’s
idealistic foreign policy, “should continue to guide us. Yet it must be
tempered by the reality that other powers with which we must deal simply do not
and probably never will agree with our concept of constitutional republicanism,
let alone human rights.”
recognized that basing U.S. foreign policy solely on issues of human rights
creates “problems that are both balky and contradictory.”
That explains why Vice President Joe Biden and
then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton reacted the way they did when the Arab
Spring slammed into Egypt in early 2011. Biden
called Mubarak an “ally” and said, “I
would not refer to him as a dictator.” Clinton described Mubarak as “a partner in trying to stabilize a region that is
subject to a lot of challenges.” Under a headline Reagan would have appreciated—“Clinton
Calls for Democracy in Egypt, but not Mubarak’s Ouster”—The Washington Post reported
that Clinton was worried about what would come after Mubarak, expressing
concerns about “a so-called democracy
that leads to what we’ve seen in Iran”
and warning that revolutions can be “hijacked by new autocrats.”
In short, Biden and Clinton
were speaking the language of principled pragmatism—something Reagan would have
Reasonable people can
disagree about whether the Obama administration should have remained pragmatic or
turned to a more idealistic approach to Egypt.
Following an idealistic
playbook would have obliged Obama to support the democrats and oppose the
autocrats, based on the notion that democracy is always in America’s
interests—even when democracy ushers in instability. The principled pragmatists
counter that American interests are more important than American ideals—and
that when the two diverge, it’s a president’s responsibility to follow the
course that serves American interests. A
pragmatic approach to Egypt would have obliged Obama to support Mubarak because
Mubarak was a moderating influence in the Arab world and a bulwark
of stability and dependability—keeping peace with Israel, keeping the Suez open
to U.S. warships, keeping extremist elements like the Muslim Brotherhood at
bay, and keeping problem states like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the mullahs’ Iran
on the margins of Mideast politics.
While a case can be made
that either playbook would have been effective in guiding the Obama
administration through Egypt’s revolution, what proved totally ineffective was the schizophrenic policy
Obama chose—a policy that neither bolstered America’s friends nor undermined
America’s enemies, a policy that failed to balance American interests and
American ideals, a policy that ignored the big picture and left friend and foe
uncertain about where America stood.
pays to recall that Obama initially praised Mubarak as “very helpful on a range of tough issues in the Middle East”
and asked the Mubarak government “to be careful about not resorting to
violence.” As The Washington Post concluded at
the end of January 2011, the overall message from the administration was that
“democracy and human rights in Egypt was not a top priority. When given the
opportunity to use the biggest megaphone in the world—the voice of the
president of the United States—the words were whispered, if said at all.”
Obama, it seemed, had chosen the path of principled pragmatism.But just 14 days after his
initial remarks praising Mubarak for standing with the United States, Obama
pulled the rug out from under Washington’s man in Cairo, demanding that Mubarak
“put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine
democracy.” A week later, the president bluntly called on Mubarak “to step down immediately.”
Obama had abandoned principled
pragmatism, sending a worrisome signal
to allies in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan that perhaps they would not be
able to count on Washington when times got tough.
For the next several months, Obama supported Egypt’s post-Mubarak democratic
experiment, even as Egypt’s new leaders trampled on minority rights, rammed
through an illiberal constitution and carried out policies that destabilized Egypt’s neighborhood.
The post-Mubarak government detained representatives from U.S. non-government
organizations, failed to provide security outside the U.S. embassy, allowed the
Sinai to become a nest
for jihadists and hosted
Iran’s head of state—the first such visit since the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Through it all, Obama stuck with the democratically elected Morsi.
But then, Egypt’s once-fractured opposition came together,
united by just one thing: they all loathed the Morsi regime. They rallied in
the streets by the millions and demanded Morsi’s resignation. Gen. Sisi gave
Morsi an ultimatum to set a date for early elections or be ousted. When Morsi
refused, his fate was sealed. Obama—turning back into a pragmatist—refused to call the military coup a coup. Even as the military crushed Morsi’s party and targeted Morsi’s political base, Secretary of State John Kerry said Gen. Sisi was “restoring democracy.” Not only was it Orwellian to call the military ouster of a democratically elected government an act of “restoring democracy”; the Egyptian military’s action against Morsi and his party virtually assured that the Brotherhood would reject the political process going forward and would instead deal exclusively in terrorism and radicalism.
Two years earlier, Obama warned Mubarak’s generals to avoid “repression or brutality.” But when the army removed Morsi last month, all that Obama mustered was a statement that “No transition to democracy comes without difficulty.”
Gen. Sisi couldn’t have asked for a greener light.
Only after hundreds were killed by Gen.
Sisi’s troops did Obama condemn “the dangerous path taken through arbitrary
arrests, a broad crackdown on Mr. Morsi’s associations and supporters, and now
tragically the violence that’s taken the lives of hundreds of people.” He then
canceled the biannual U.S.-Egypt war games known as Bright Star—but not the
$1.5 billion annual aid package that equips Gen. Sisi’s troops with American
helicopters, planes and tanks he used to crush a deeply flawed but
democratically elected government.
In short, it would have been
perfectly sensible for Obama, on pragmatic grounds, to have stuck with Mubarak
in 2011 and to back Gen. Sisi today. Mubarak and the general are, after all, the
enemies of our enemy. Likewise, it would have been understandable if Obama, on
idealist grounds, had sided with the liberals from the outset and opposed the
military coup today. And it would have been honorable to find a way to stand by
our friend Mubarak and stand for our enduring commitment to the spread of
democracy, as Reagan did in the Philippines.
But Obama did none of these. Instead,
at each juncture, Obama seemed to do the very opposite of what would have
either served American interests or burnished American ideals.
Regrettably, Egypt is not an
In 2008, Obama asked, “Will we stand for the human rights of…the blogger
in Iran?” The answer came just a year later, when he averted his gaze as
the mullahs crushed Iran’s Twitter
He drew “red lines” and dusted off
the “never again” trope in Syria, but when Damascus crossed those lines the
consequences came too late to make a difference and were too limited to exact
any real punishment.
The reason for the
president’s vacillating foreign policy is that he has never defined the core of
his foreign policy. That “big picture” which guided Reagan and other successful
foreign-policy presidents seems to elude Obama.
As Reagan explained, “A leader, once convinced a
particular course of action is the right one, must have the determination to
stick with it and be undaunted when the going gets tough.”
Obama still has time to
discover and define his foreign-policy core. A good place to start would be to
read up on Reagan.
*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.