What lesson is Washington giving its Arab allies?
If I were a fly on the wall in the Sharm al-Sheikh refuge of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, I would probably hear him saying some harsh words. Surely he must feel bitter over the way he was ousted by his own people. However, if I were able to eavesdrop on him calling President Barack Obama, I would probably hear him saying something harsher, such as, “After serving you for so long as a stable, pro-American pillar in this region, where everybody hates you, you dump me the minute my regime starts shaking?”
Indeed, what is the lesson the United States is now giving to the other Arab, pro-American regimes? In Amman, Riyadh and elsewhere, dictators might now conclude that as long as they are stable and pro-American, Washington will support them while turning a blind eye to the suppressive nature of their regimes. However, the minute they falter, they should expect an envoy from the same Washington to show up and tell them that their time is over, and that they have to yield to the will of the people. But how can they possibly maintaintheir stability, if not by harsher measures of suppression? Is that what Washington really wants?
I was reminded this week of Henry Kissinger, former U.S. secretary of state, who had said that “all strategic alliances are conditional.” My interpretation of this is that it was okay for Washington to treat autocratic Mr. Mubarak as a strategic ally as long as he could deliver. Once his standing was questioned, there emerged democracy, human rights, etc.
Mr. Kissinger wrote his PhD dissertation at Harvard about Klemens von Metternich, the 19th century Austrian statesman, and later published it in 1957 under the title A World Restored. Metternich is usually associated with the concept of realpolitik, a non-ideological approach to foreign relations, promoting what is best for the national interest. Indeed, Mr. Kissinger, under Richard Nixon, exercised realpolitik by opening the door to China, despite American aversion to communism. Needless to remind here that in the process, Taiwan, Washington hitherto loyal ally, was dumped without any remorse.
To Mr. Obama’s credit, in his June, 2009, Cairo speech he outlined his vision vis-à-vis the Muslim world, and expressed his belief in a need for democracy in this region in no uncertain terms. “You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion,” he said; “you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.”
However, as Mr. Obama himself said, “elections alone do not make true democracy.” If we invoke old Metternich again, he ridiculed the liberal attempts in Europe early in the 19th century, to impose on people without democratic tradition, English institutions of parliamentary government. “A people who can neither read nor write,” he said sarcastically, “whose last word is the dagger – fine material for constitutional principles! … The English constitution is the work of centuries … There is no universal recipe for constitutions.”
Alas, this is the case with Egypt and the rest of the Arab world today. Even if all the despots are removed, and people go to the ballots, and there is a free press, what about the enormous socioeconomic problems – poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, the status of women, to name only a few? If free people can’t support their families and give their children education, then all the demonstrations in Tahrir Square were useless. After the initial joy will come frustration, followed by despair – the fuel of radical Islam.
The United States and Europe now hail democracy in Egypt, urging the rest of the region to follow. But are they also willing to shoulder the awesome task of pulling the Arab Middle East out of its backward situation into the 21st century, with all the huge investments involved? If not, then they are doomed to see the region fall either into the hands of Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and their likes, or into the iron grip of the military.
In the meantime, as an Israeli who cherishes the alliance with the United States, I should be feeling safe, living in a country which is both stable and democratic. I wonder, then, why the recent American move toward Egypt made me a bit nervous.
Uri Dromi was spokesman for Israel’s Rabin and Peres governments between 1992 and 1996.