Commentary Magazine


Topic: Islamic Republic of Iran

More on the Freedom Agenda

I want to add several thought to John’s illuminating post on neoconservatism and democracy.

1. The most radical Islamic governments in the world — Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iraq under Saddam, Sudan, Syria, the PLO under Yasir Arafat, and others — did not come to power through elections. The Middle East, without democracy, is hardly a region characterized by tranquility and peace. And we have plenty of successful precedents of authoritarian/totalitarian regimes making a successful transition to democracy (in Central and Eastern Europe, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, Iraq, and post–WWII Japan and Germany among them).

2. The fact that not every election goes as we might hope does not invalidate support for elections or the effort to promote liberty in other lands. Adolf Hitler came to power through elections in Germany in 1933. Should that election have undermined democracy as an idea?

3. Freedom has a remarkable historical track record, including in regions of the world once thought to be inimical to it. But it takes patience and commitment to see it through to success. The democratic evolution of Iraq, while certainly imperfect and fragile, is a source of encouragement. And among the best testimonies to how lethal liberty is to the aims of militant Islam is the energy and ruthlessness with which al-Qaeda and Iran tried to strangle freedom in Iraq.

4. If a healthy political culture is the sine qua non for self-government, then we are essentially telling every, or at least many, non-democratic societies that freedom is beyond their reach. It’s not. Still, strong liberal institutions will certainly assist freedom to take root. That’s why American policy should encourage democratic institution-building. Our influence in this area is often limited; but limited is not the same as nonexistent.

5. It’s not clear what the alternative is for the critics of democracy. The Egyptian revolution began in response to the oppression of the Mubarak regime, without American support. Given where we are, do critics of the freedom agenda believe we should support more repression in order to exert even greater control within Arab societies — repression that helped give rise to the resentments, violence, and toxic anti-Americanism that has characterized much of the Middle East?

In the Middle East, Western nations tolerated oppression for the sake of “stability.” But this merely bought time as ideologies of violence took hold. As the events in Egypt demonstrate, the sand has just about run out of the hourglass.

This doesn’t mean that our policy should be indiscriminate. The goal isn’t for America to act as a scythe that decapitates every autocratic regime in the world. And it doesn’t mean that democratic-led revolutions can’t be hijacked.

Still, there’s no way other than democracy to fundamentally reform the Arab Middle East. Self-government and the accompanying rise in free institutions is the only route to a better world — and because the work is difficult, doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

I want to add several thought to John’s illuminating post on neoconservatism and democracy.

1. The most radical Islamic governments in the world — Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iraq under Saddam, Sudan, Syria, the PLO under Yasir Arafat, and others — did not come to power through elections. The Middle East, without democracy, is hardly a region characterized by tranquility and peace. And we have plenty of successful precedents of authoritarian/totalitarian regimes making a successful transition to democracy (in Central and Eastern Europe, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, Iraq, and post–WWII Japan and Germany among them).

2. The fact that not every election goes as we might hope does not invalidate support for elections or the effort to promote liberty in other lands. Adolf Hitler came to power through elections in Germany in 1933. Should that election have undermined democracy as an idea?

3. Freedom has a remarkable historical track record, including in regions of the world once thought to be inimical to it. But it takes patience and commitment to see it through to success. The democratic evolution of Iraq, while certainly imperfect and fragile, is a source of encouragement. And among the best testimonies to how lethal liberty is to the aims of militant Islam is the energy and ruthlessness with which al-Qaeda and Iran tried to strangle freedom in Iraq.

4. If a healthy political culture is the sine qua non for self-government, then we are essentially telling every, or at least many, non-democratic societies that freedom is beyond their reach. It’s not. Still, strong liberal institutions will certainly assist freedom to take root. That’s why American policy should encourage democratic institution-building. Our influence in this area is often limited; but limited is not the same as nonexistent.

5. It’s not clear what the alternative is for the critics of democracy. The Egyptian revolution began in response to the oppression of the Mubarak regime, without American support. Given where we are, do critics of the freedom agenda believe we should support more repression in order to exert even greater control within Arab societies — repression that helped give rise to the resentments, violence, and toxic anti-Americanism that has characterized much of the Middle East?

In the Middle East, Western nations tolerated oppression for the sake of “stability.” But this merely bought time as ideologies of violence took hold. As the events in Egypt demonstrate, the sand has just about run out of the hourglass.

This doesn’t mean that our policy should be indiscriminate. The goal isn’t for America to act as a scythe that decapitates every autocratic regime in the world. And it doesn’t mean that democratic-led revolutions can’t be hijacked.

Still, there’s no way other than democracy to fundamentally reform the Arab Middle East. Self-government and the accompanying rise in free institutions is the only route to a better world — and because the work is difficult, doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

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Sharansky: Reagan Right, Critics Wrong

Ronald Reagan, who would have been 100 this Sunday, had an instinctive affinity for Jews and Israel. As an actor who spent decades in the heavily Jewish environment of Hollywood and who counted scores of Jews among his friends and colleagues, he moved easily in pro-Israel circles. Both as a private citizen and as governor of California, he was a familiar sight and a favored speaker at various functions for Israel.

“I’ve believed many things in my life,” Reagan states in his memoirs, “but no conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.”

Reagan inaugurated what Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman termed the “Solid Gold Era” in U.S.-Israel relations. Even so — and this underscores the inevitability of disagreement between Israel and even the friendliest of U.S. presidents — he found himself engaged in a series of tiffs with the Israeli government.

The earliest friction concerned Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in June 1981. The U.S. voted with the rest of the UN Security Council to condemn the action and briefly held up delivery of some F-16 aircraft to Israel, but there were no permanent ramifications.

“Technically,” Reagan notes in his memoirs, “Israel had violated an agreement with us not to use U.S.-made weapons for offensive purposes, and some cabinet members wanted me to lean hard on Israel because it had broken this pledge. … I sympathized with [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s motivations and privately believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.” Read More

Ronald Reagan, who would have been 100 this Sunday, had an instinctive affinity for Jews and Israel. As an actor who spent decades in the heavily Jewish environment of Hollywood and who counted scores of Jews among his friends and colleagues, he moved easily in pro-Israel circles. Both as a private citizen and as governor of California, he was a familiar sight and a favored speaker at various functions for Israel.

“I’ve believed many things in my life,” Reagan states in his memoirs, “but no conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.”

Reagan inaugurated what Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman termed the “Solid Gold Era” in U.S.-Israel relations. Even so — and this underscores the inevitability of disagreement between Israel and even the friendliest of U.S. presidents — he found himself engaged in a series of tiffs with the Israeli government.

The earliest friction concerned Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in June 1981. The U.S. voted with the rest of the UN Security Council to condemn the action and briefly held up delivery of some F-16 aircraft to Israel, but there were no permanent ramifications.

“Technically,” Reagan notes in his memoirs, “Israel had violated an agreement with us not to use U.S.-made weapons for offensive purposes, and some cabinet members wanted me to lean hard on Israel because it had broken this pledge. … I sympathized with [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s motivations and privately believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Later in 1981, a bitter fight was played out in Congress between the White House and supporters of Israel over Reagan’s determination to follow through on the Carter administration’s decision to sell Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft (AWACS) to Saudi Arabia. The sale was finally approved by a narrow margin, but the confrontation left bruised feelings and egos on both sides.

Ironically, Israeli military leaders were never in the forefront of the AWACS opposition; according to Raviv and Melman, “the commanders of the Israeli air force — the officers most directly concerned — were willing to live with AWACS flying over Saudi Arabia. They did not see them as a serious threat to Israel’s security.”

The U.S.-Israel relationship was strong enough by then to survive a series of mini-crises during the Reagan era, including Washington’s dismay at the scope of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon; the failure of the so-called Reagan Plan, which called for a freeze on Israeli settlements and the eventual creation of a quasi-independent Palestinian entity; the visit by Reagan to a German cemetery that contained the remains of SS soldiers; the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Israel played a major role; the arrest and conviction of an American citizen, Jonathan Pollard, on charges of spying for Israel; and the administration’s 1988 decision to talk to the PLO after Yasir Arafat made the requisite noises about recognizing Israel.

Through it all, Reagan provided more military and financial aid to Israel than any of his predecessors. Washington also worked closer with Israel on the economic front, and in 1985 the administration signed a landmark Free Trade Area agreement, long sought by Israel, which resulted in a hefty boost in Israeli exports to the U.S.

Beyond the Middle East, the plight of Soviet Jews was bound to strike a sympathetic chord with someone as unbendingly anti-Communist as Reagan.

“The Soviet leaders,” recalled former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir,  “told me that every time they met with [Secretary of State George] Shultz, he raised the issue of Soviet Jewry.”

The Reagan administration was instrumental in gaining the release in 1986 of prominent Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky, imprisoned for nine years on trumped-up treason charges. Sharansky has written of his reaction when, in 1983, confined to a tiny cell in a prison near the Siberian border, he saw on the front page of Pravda that Reagan — much to the ridicule and outrage of American and European liberals — had labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

As Sharansky describes it:

Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan’s “provocation” quickly spread throughout the prison. We dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth — a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us. I never imagined that three years later I would be in the White House telling this story to the president. … Reagan was right and his critics were wrong.

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Neoconservatives and Democracy: A 30-Year Story

So it comes as a shock to many people, evidently, that “neoconservative” American intellectuals are consistent in holding the opinion that the national interest is best served by offering moral, logistical, and rhetorical support to those who seek “regime change” in dictatorial societies.

The plain fact of the matter is that this has been the “neoconservative” view for nearly three decades now — since the decision was made during the effort to save El Salvador from Soviet- and Cuban-aligned guerrilla forces to simultaneously push for elections there. That was a controversial choice then; people on the liberal left considered the El Salvador democratization policy mere window dressing for alignment with right-wing thugs, and realist conservatives considered it a display of ludicrous sentimentality.

The 1982 election in El Salvador was a turning point, however, a moment when the people of that country made it clear that they wanted a way out of the binary choice of a junta or a Castro-ite state. It had been Jeane Kirkpatrick’s argument in her great 1979 COMMENTARY article that, when there is a binary choice between authoritarians and totalitarians, it is not only prudent but moral to choose the former, in part because authoritarian societies can change and evolve.

But what if there are choices that go beyond the binary? That was, in effect, what the democratization strategy was all about. It complemented Kirkpatrick’s argument in one sense because it was predicated on the notion that authoritarian regimes could be pushed toward change. But it also superseded it, since it suggested that the citizens of these nations could and would play a vital role not only in creating the change but also in implementing it.

This was not a developed philosophy at the time; indeed, the El Salvador policy was conceived in response to events on the ground and the need to build domestic support for anti-Communist efforts in Latin America. But over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, with lessons learned along the way, the democratization strategy became something more coherent. Read More

So it comes as a shock to many people, evidently, that “neoconservative” American intellectuals are consistent in holding the opinion that the national interest is best served by offering moral, logistical, and rhetorical support to those who seek “regime change” in dictatorial societies.

The plain fact of the matter is that this has been the “neoconservative” view for nearly three decades now — since the decision was made during the effort to save El Salvador from Soviet- and Cuban-aligned guerrilla forces to simultaneously push for elections there. That was a controversial choice then; people on the liberal left considered the El Salvador democratization policy mere window dressing for alignment with right-wing thugs, and realist conservatives considered it a display of ludicrous sentimentality.

The 1982 election in El Salvador was a turning point, however, a moment when the people of that country made it clear that they wanted a way out of the binary choice of a junta or a Castro-ite state. It had been Jeane Kirkpatrick’s argument in her great 1979 COMMENTARY article that, when there is a binary choice between authoritarians and totalitarians, it is not only prudent but moral to choose the former, in part because authoritarian societies can change and evolve.

But what if there are choices that go beyond the binary? That was, in effect, what the democratization strategy was all about. It complemented Kirkpatrick’s argument in one sense because it was predicated on the notion that authoritarian regimes could be pushed toward change. But it also superseded it, since it suggested that the citizens of these nations could and would play a vital role not only in creating the change but also in implementing it.

This was not a developed philosophy at the time; indeed, the El Salvador policy was conceived in response to events on the ground and the need to build domestic support for anti-Communist efforts in Latin America. But over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, with lessons learned along the way, the democratization strategy became something more coherent.

For example, in the case of the anti-Communist efforts in Nicaragua, the CIA preferred working with the Contras, for whom its agents had essentially bought and paid, no matter their political coloration; officials at the State Department, however, thought that it was a mistake to align the United States with elements of the previous thug regime and that the U.S. should be promoting liberal forces within the Contra movement.

But probably the key year for the maturation of these ideas was 1986. It was a general axiom on the right, including among neoconservatives, that efforts to impose an economic embargo on South Africa were dangerous and naive because, though the apartheid regime might be unjust, it could be pushed to reform, and the sanctions might lead to a Soviet-aligned takeover of a strategically important country. When Congress voted for such sanctions, Ronald Reagan vetoed them. His veto was overridden.

And those of us who thought the sanctions would be disastrous were proved utterly mistaken. They turned out to be an effective strategy for crippling the regime without toppling it and forcing its end in a manner more pacific than anyone expected. (Not that South Africa post-apartheid is a wonderful model, but it was a gravely wounded civil society, and its healing will take a long time.) Part of the reason that sanctions have been a part of the American diplomatic toolbox ever since, and always with neoconservative support, is that they proved successful in South Africa.

The other thing that happened was an election in the Philippines, whose authoritarian junta regime was closely allied with the United States. The clear theft of the election by Ferdinand Marcos’s forces created a massive groundswell in the streets. At first, the White House did what Barack Obama did with the revolt in Egypt — it tried to stay out of it. Then-Secretary of State George Shultz, together with the later-notorious Paul Wolfowitz, who ran the State Department’s East Asia bureau, convinced Ronald Reagan to change policy, support those who said the election had been stolen, and eventually, with great efficiency, convince Marcos it was time for him to go.

And on it went, with South Korea and Taiwan and Chile and many other nations whose authoritarian regimes peacefully gave way to more liberal ones in part because of the encouragement of the United States.

It’s not a perfect strategy, by any means. No strategy is, and no strategy is applicable in every circumstance. The danger that Egypt might not follow in the path of the Philippines but rather in the path of revolutionary Iran is very real. But as the year of Carter-administration fecklessness on Iran that preceded Khomeini’s takeover in 1979 proved, a policy of passivity is not a way out for a president who does not know what to do.

America can’t not choose sides in such a struggle. Not choosing sides is, in effect, to choose sides. So it’s better to have a policy that offers a direction congruent with our values, and with a proven track record, than one that offers nothing but confusion.

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Obama and Egypt vs. Reagan and the Philippines

President Mubarak’s supporters have decided to instigate violence against the anti-government protesters. This ugly turn of events underscores why Mubarak must leave sooner rather than later. The longer he hangs on to power, weakened but not gone from the scene, the worse everything in Egypt will be. That is why the Washington Post is right in its editorial criticizing the president’s response last night to Mubarak’s statements as “ambiguous.”

“He said he had told the Egyptian president in a phone call that ‘an orderly transition must be meaningful, must be peaceful, and must begin now’ — but he did not object to the strongman’s plan to remain in office,” according to the Post. “Like Mr. Mubarak, Mr. Obama did not go far enough.”

It’s worth comparing what is happening in Egypt with what happened in the Philippines during the Reagan presidency.

In his book An American Life, Reagan writes about how Ferdinand Marco had stolen an election and that an uprising of Filipinos on behalf of Corazon Aquino, the legitimate winner, was inevitable.

On February 23, Reagan was at Camp David and told that Marcos and a loyal general, Fabian Ver, had amassed a force of tanks and troops to attack army units of two military leaders who had resigned from the Marcos government and given their support to Aquino. Ver’s tanks were turned back by hundreds of thousands of civilians — “but the next time,” Reagan wrote, “the result might be huge casualties.” Read More

President Mubarak’s supporters have decided to instigate violence against the anti-government protesters. This ugly turn of events underscores why Mubarak must leave sooner rather than later. The longer he hangs on to power, weakened but not gone from the scene, the worse everything in Egypt will be. That is why the Washington Post is right in its editorial criticizing the president’s response last night to Mubarak’s statements as “ambiguous.”

“He said he had told the Egyptian president in a phone call that ‘an orderly transition must be meaningful, must be peaceful, and must begin now’ — but he did not object to the strongman’s plan to remain in office,” according to the Post. “Like Mr. Mubarak, Mr. Obama did not go far enough.”

It’s worth comparing what is happening in Egypt with what happened in the Philippines during the Reagan presidency.

In his book An American Life, Reagan writes about how Ferdinand Marco had stolen an election and that an uprising of Filipinos on behalf of Corazon Aquino, the legitimate winner, was inevitable.

On February 23, Reagan was at Camp David and told that Marcos and a loyal general, Fabian Ver, had amassed a force of tanks and troops to attack army units of two military leaders who had resigned from the Marcos government and given their support to Aquino. Ver’s tanks were turned back by hundreds of thousands of civilians — “but the next time,” Reagan wrote, “the result might be huge casualties.”

Reagan drafted an appeal to Marcos not to use force and attended a meeting in the Situation Room on February 23, 1986. “We agreed that it was inevitable that Marcos would have to give up power,” Reagan wrote. “He no longer had the popular support to remain in office. … Everyone agreed that we had to do everything possible to avoid bloodshed in Manila; we didn’t want to see it come down to a civil war. I also wanted to be sure we did not treat Marcos as shabbily as our country had treated another former ally, the shah of Iran. At the same time, I knew it was important to start off with a good relationship with the new government of the Philippines.”

Reagan’s diary entries from the period are even more interesting. On February 23, the day of the Situation Room meeting, Reagan wrote, “It was a long meeting with no disagreement but lots of frustration. President Marcos is stubborn and refuses to admit he can no longer govern. I made the point that a message from me must appeal to him on the grounds that if there is violence I’ll be helpless to continue support for the Philippines.”

On February 24, Reagan’s diary reads: “The situation in the Philippines is deteriorating. … We’ve agreed that he [Marcos] should be told I’m recommending he step down and we’ll take the lead in negotiating his safety and offering him sanctuary in the US. He says he wants to live out his life in the Philippines. Well, we’ll try to negotiate that.”

On February 25, Reagan’s diary entry reads this way: “The call this morning was at 6:45. President Marcos and his family and close circle I was told are in our Clark Air Force Base.”

Now the situation in Egypt compared with that in the Philippines is different in important respects. Among other things, there was an obvious successor to Marcos, while there’s no obvious successor to Mubarak. And Reagan admitted that he didn’t want to push Marcos too hard. “We should lay down the facts and let [Marcos] make the decision we wanted him to make” is how Reagan put it.

The point is that, within 48 hours of Reagan’s laying down the facts, Marcos was gone. This development wasn’t the result of Reagan’s charm; it was the result of Reagan’s steel.

What happened to Marcos in the Philippines has to be to our goal with Mubarak in Egypt. Time is of the essence. The Egyptian dictator must leave. And it falls on President Obama to do what needs to be done to get him to exit, sooner rather than later, in a matter of hours or days rather than weeks or months. Otherwise Egypt might explode.

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Judgment Calls and the Muslim Brotherhood

On Monday, White House press spokesman Robert Gibbs said that any new government in Egypt “has to include a whole host of important non-secular actors that give Egypt a strong chance to continue to be [a] stable and reliable partner.” In Egypt, that would mean the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the New York Times today, we’re told, “Significantly, during the meeting [on Monday], White House staff members ‘made clear that they did not rule out engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood as part of an orderly process,’ according to one attendee.”

This report comes after a June 2, 2009, report in the New Republic by Michael Crowley that “in an unexpected bit of diplomatic choreography, several members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been invited to attend Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo tomorrow.”

Now what is it about the Obama administration that would lead it to be mostly silent during the uprising against the Islamic theocracy in Iran, fearful to offend the regime in power, and yet go out of its way to try to secure a seat at the table for the Muslim Brotherhood in a post-Mubarak Egypt?

I understand that the Muslim Brotherhood is not al-Qaeda. But I also understand that the Muslim Brotherhood will never be confused with Madisonian reformers. The motto of the Brotherhood — “Allah is our objective, the Prophet is our leader, the Koran is our law, Jihad is our way, and dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope. Allahu akbar!” — hardly rivals “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

I appreciate the fact that when you’re serving in the White House during an unfolding foreign-policy crisis, there are hard, close calls to make. But whether to strengthen and legitimize the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t one of them.

(h/t: Charles Krauthammer)

On Monday, White House press spokesman Robert Gibbs said that any new government in Egypt “has to include a whole host of important non-secular actors that give Egypt a strong chance to continue to be [a] stable and reliable partner.” In Egypt, that would mean the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the New York Times today, we’re told, “Significantly, during the meeting [on Monday], White House staff members ‘made clear that they did not rule out engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood as part of an orderly process,’ according to one attendee.”

This report comes after a June 2, 2009, report in the New Republic by Michael Crowley that “in an unexpected bit of diplomatic choreography, several members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been invited to attend Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo tomorrow.”

Now what is it about the Obama administration that would lead it to be mostly silent during the uprising against the Islamic theocracy in Iran, fearful to offend the regime in power, and yet go out of its way to try to secure a seat at the table for the Muslim Brotherhood in a post-Mubarak Egypt?

I understand that the Muslim Brotherhood is not al-Qaeda. But I also understand that the Muslim Brotherhood will never be confused with Madisonian reformers. The motto of the Brotherhood — “Allah is our objective, the Prophet is our leader, the Koran is our law, Jihad is our way, and dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope. Allahu akbar!” — hardly rivals “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

I appreciate the fact that when you’re serving in the White House during an unfolding foreign-policy crisis, there are hard, close calls to make. But whether to strengthen and legitimize the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t one of them.

(h/t: Charles Krauthammer)

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In Egypt, We Cannot Afford to Repeat Past Mistakes

I fully understand the dangers of what is happening in Egypt. I am as apprehensive as anyone about the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood exploiting current events to gain power. I am fully aware of how Hosni Mubarak has been a useful ally in many ways. Yet, when I watch pro-government thugs attacking peaceful protesters, I am rooting wholeheartedly for the protesters and against the thugs. I imagine most Americans are, indeed most people around the world — a few Realpolitikers excepted.

The attacks in downtown Cairo, which have left many bleeding and some no doubt dead, are the dying gasp of a discredited regime. This is no Tiananmen Square — this is not the army being unleashed to use decisive force to crush the demonstrations. Instead, it is a motley collection of thugs and mercenaries: many no doubt secret policemen or other government functionaries, others rented for the day for a few bucks. The army’s role seems to be limited to that of a bystander, which is alarming in and of itself. Previously, the army had appeared to be on the side of the people. Now, following Mubarak’s announcement that he would not seek re-election in September — an announcement that did not preclude a Mubarak crony like Omar Suleiman or even the dictator’s son Gamal from running in a rigged vote — the army appears to be up for grabs. Earlier today an army spokesman called on the demonstrators to disperse, but troops are not enforcing that edict. No doubt the army generals are sniffing the wind to figure out which way to go now. Just as clearly, the people of Egypt are demanding an end to the Mubarak regime — now, not in the fall.

The United States, a nation born in a liberal revolution, has no choice but to stand with the people. In many ways, this is a continuation of the same battle fought in the streets of Europe in 1848 and 1989: the quest of a people yearning for freedom against the representatives of a corrupt and entrenched ruling oligarchy. America’s role, as the champion of liberty, should be to usher Mubarak out of power as quickly and painlessly as possible in order to avert further bloodshed and to make it harder for malign elements to take advantage of the disorder for their own nefarious purposes. We did not do enough to aid democrats in Russia in 1917 or in Iran in 1979; in both cases, we stuck with a discredited ancien regime until it was too late and reacted too slowly to revolutionary upheavals. Let us not repeat that mistake in Egypt.

I fully understand the dangers of what is happening in Egypt. I am as apprehensive as anyone about the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood exploiting current events to gain power. I am fully aware of how Hosni Mubarak has been a useful ally in many ways. Yet, when I watch pro-government thugs attacking peaceful protesters, I am rooting wholeheartedly for the protesters and against the thugs. I imagine most Americans are, indeed most people around the world — a few Realpolitikers excepted.

The attacks in downtown Cairo, which have left many bleeding and some no doubt dead, are the dying gasp of a discredited regime. This is no Tiananmen Square — this is not the army being unleashed to use decisive force to crush the demonstrations. Instead, it is a motley collection of thugs and mercenaries: many no doubt secret policemen or other government functionaries, others rented for the day for a few bucks. The army’s role seems to be limited to that of a bystander, which is alarming in and of itself. Previously, the army had appeared to be on the side of the people. Now, following Mubarak’s announcement that he would not seek re-election in September — an announcement that did not preclude a Mubarak crony like Omar Suleiman or even the dictator’s son Gamal from running in a rigged vote — the army appears to be up for grabs. Earlier today an army spokesman called on the demonstrators to disperse, but troops are not enforcing that edict. No doubt the army generals are sniffing the wind to figure out which way to go now. Just as clearly, the people of Egypt are demanding an end to the Mubarak regime — now, not in the fall.

The United States, a nation born in a liberal revolution, has no choice but to stand with the people. In many ways, this is a continuation of the same battle fought in the streets of Europe in 1848 and 1989: the quest of a people yearning for freedom against the representatives of a corrupt and entrenched ruling oligarchy. America’s role, as the champion of liberty, should be to usher Mubarak out of power as quickly and painlessly as possible in order to avert further bloodshed and to make it harder for malign elements to take advantage of the disorder for their own nefarious purposes. We did not do enough to aid democrats in Russia in 1917 or in Iran in 1979; in both cases, we stuck with a discredited ancien regime until it was too late and reacted too slowly to revolutionary upheavals. Let us not repeat that mistake in Egypt.

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Go Read Kirkpatrick. Again.

Now more than ever, Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “Dictatorships & Double Standards” essay deserves to be read and pondered. If this isn’t the greatest essay COMMENTARY has ever published, it’s certainly the most influential.

Amb. Kirkpatrick doesn’t tell us “what we should do” about Egypt, and it’s impossible to summarize such a brilliant piece. But she does make three relevant points: about freedom, revolution, and the American administration. First, as Peter has implied and as Abe has written, “The time to urge a dictator to grant his people freedoms is before he’s flitting between burning buildings”; in other words, if we want to encourage autocracies to move towards democracy, it cannot be a crisis response.

Second, in foreign policy as elsewhere, the best is often the enemy of the good — or at least the marginally tolerable. John Steele Gordon says that this may be 1848 in the Arab World, and he might be right. But that is an invidious comparison, for in the one country that really mattered on the continent — Germany — 1848 turned out in retrospect to mark liberalism’s decisive defeat. In light of 1914, never mind 1939, it might have been better if 1848 had never happened.

It would be nice if, as Peter says, “the driving force of events in Egypt [is] tied to the universal human desire for liberty and free elections, for an end to political corruption and oppression.” But as my colleague Jim Phillips points out, this is far from a sure bet, and the poisonous legacy of the Egyptian educational system that Alana refers to sure doesn’t help matters.

Third, and finally, there is the contrast between the president’s claim as of last Tuesday that “American leadership has been renewed and America’s standing has been restored” and Iran, where this administration sat on its hands as a viciously anti-American regime with a nuclear-weapons program slaughtered and raped protesters at will. And Honduras, where it moved heaven and earth to reinstate a pro-Chavez dictator in the making. And Egypt, where it is mincing about reform partnerships with Mubarak and the Egyptian people, a partnership that exists nowhere except in the Obama administration’s fevered desire to catch up with events that have relentlessly outpaced it.

So yes, as Kirkpatrick said of Carter, Obama is “especially vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy.” Yes indeed.

Now more than ever, Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “Dictatorships & Double Standards” essay deserves to be read and pondered. If this isn’t the greatest essay COMMENTARY has ever published, it’s certainly the most influential.

Amb. Kirkpatrick doesn’t tell us “what we should do” about Egypt, and it’s impossible to summarize such a brilliant piece. But she does make three relevant points: about freedom, revolution, and the American administration. First, as Peter has implied and as Abe has written, “The time to urge a dictator to grant his people freedoms is before he’s flitting between burning buildings”; in other words, if we want to encourage autocracies to move towards democracy, it cannot be a crisis response.

Second, in foreign policy as elsewhere, the best is often the enemy of the good — or at least the marginally tolerable. John Steele Gordon says that this may be 1848 in the Arab World, and he might be right. But that is an invidious comparison, for in the one country that really mattered on the continent — Germany — 1848 turned out in retrospect to mark liberalism’s decisive defeat. In light of 1914, never mind 1939, it might have been better if 1848 had never happened.

It would be nice if, as Peter says, “the driving force of events in Egypt [is] tied to the universal human desire for liberty and free elections, for an end to political corruption and oppression.” But as my colleague Jim Phillips points out, this is far from a sure bet, and the poisonous legacy of the Egyptian educational system that Alana refers to sure doesn’t help matters.

Third, and finally, there is the contrast between the president’s claim as of last Tuesday that “American leadership has been renewed and America’s standing has been restored” and Iran, where this administration sat on its hands as a viciously anti-American regime with a nuclear-weapons program slaughtered and raped protesters at will. And Honduras, where it moved heaven and earth to reinstate a pro-Chavez dictator in the making. And Egypt, where it is mincing about reform partnerships with Mubarak and the Egyptian people, a partnership that exists nowhere except in the Obama administration’s fevered desire to catch up with events that have relentlessly outpaced it.

So yes, as Kirkpatrick said of Carter, Obama is “especially vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy.” Yes indeed.

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Egypt: Why America Can’t Work to Prevent Change

What is happening in the streets of Egypt is not about the United States or its relation to Hosni Mubarak. The drama has to do with life inside Egypt after 30 years of Mubarak’s autocratic rule, which was preceded by 30 years of similarly autocratic rule by Nasser and Sadat. And yet there seems to be an idea, which one can find suggested in the latest writings of Caroline Glick and Stanley Kurtz, among others, that the United States might have played a crucial role in preventing what appears to be the inevitable Mubarak ouster — and that the U.S. is thereby acceding to the takeover of Egypt by a government that will make the region less safe, less hospitable to us, and of greater danger to Israel.

That may all be so. But it doesn’t actually matter as a practical reality. Kurtz and Glick and some others are, I think, guilty of reiterating a great foreign-policy fallacy, which is that the United States has the power to control the outcomes of large-scale events in faraway lands even when it does not have a direct hand to play with troops and planes and bombs.

Where is the evidence that the United States has a role to play in the prevention of change? Recent history suggests that our only really effective role when it comes to change is when we involve ourselves in hastening it, as we did with assassinations in the 1950s and 1960s, or by choosing sides with the forces of change, as we did in the 1980s in places as various as El Salvador and the Philippines and in the 1990s in Haiti and Bosnia.

Think of the times we have attempted to slow down or impede change. We did in Iran in the late 1970s in a way that came a terrible cropper. We did again, to our shame, at the beginning of the 1990s, when “Chicken Kiev” Bush tried to slam the brakes on the dissolution of the Soviet Empire. And is anyone happy with the way the Obama administration handled the post-election revolt in Iran in 2009?

The implicit notion in these analyses is that the United States should be backing Mubarak to the hilt so that he could put down the revolt before the Muslim Brotherhood takes over. But aside from the highly questionable proposition that our encouragement and support would change the balance of forces in Mubarak’s favor, doing any such thing is akin to suggesting that we ignore the forces of gravity. It is unrealistic in the most basic sense. It is written into the DNA of the United States that, when push comes to shove, we cannot support the forces of tyranny over mass protest.

Hardheaded choices must be made at times, and indeed have been made at times, especially when the options were a regime friendly to the United States vs. a regime that would have been friendly to the Soviet Union. But those choices did not come at moments of flash-point crisis, with a regime’s legitimacy crumbling before the world’s eyes. And they didn’t come at a time when worldwide instant communications make it impossible for the regime to black out the evidence of its suppression.

In warning us not to view the goings-on with unwarranted optimism, those expressing profound concern about what will come next in Egypt are performing a great service. We are heading into rough waters that had been largely stilled in recent decades. But that is why, perhaps, they should have been more supportive of the idea that Mubarak and others should have been pushed toward democratic reform so that the transition to change might have been managed rather than simply observed powerlessly as it turns into a runaway steamroller.

What is happening in the streets of Egypt is not about the United States or its relation to Hosni Mubarak. The drama has to do with life inside Egypt after 30 years of Mubarak’s autocratic rule, which was preceded by 30 years of similarly autocratic rule by Nasser and Sadat. And yet there seems to be an idea, which one can find suggested in the latest writings of Caroline Glick and Stanley Kurtz, among others, that the United States might have played a crucial role in preventing what appears to be the inevitable Mubarak ouster — and that the U.S. is thereby acceding to the takeover of Egypt by a government that will make the region less safe, less hospitable to us, and of greater danger to Israel.

That may all be so. But it doesn’t actually matter as a practical reality. Kurtz and Glick and some others are, I think, guilty of reiterating a great foreign-policy fallacy, which is that the United States has the power to control the outcomes of large-scale events in faraway lands even when it does not have a direct hand to play with troops and planes and bombs.

Where is the evidence that the United States has a role to play in the prevention of change? Recent history suggests that our only really effective role when it comes to change is when we involve ourselves in hastening it, as we did with assassinations in the 1950s and 1960s, or by choosing sides with the forces of change, as we did in the 1980s in places as various as El Salvador and the Philippines and in the 1990s in Haiti and Bosnia.

Think of the times we have attempted to slow down or impede change. We did in Iran in the late 1970s in a way that came a terrible cropper. We did again, to our shame, at the beginning of the 1990s, when “Chicken Kiev” Bush tried to slam the brakes on the dissolution of the Soviet Empire. And is anyone happy with the way the Obama administration handled the post-election revolt in Iran in 2009?

The implicit notion in these analyses is that the United States should be backing Mubarak to the hilt so that he could put down the revolt before the Muslim Brotherhood takes over. But aside from the highly questionable proposition that our encouragement and support would change the balance of forces in Mubarak’s favor, doing any such thing is akin to suggesting that we ignore the forces of gravity. It is unrealistic in the most basic sense. It is written into the DNA of the United States that, when push comes to shove, we cannot support the forces of tyranny over mass protest.

Hardheaded choices must be made at times, and indeed have been made at times, especially when the options were a regime friendly to the United States vs. a regime that would have been friendly to the Soviet Union. But those choices did not come at moments of flash-point crisis, with a regime’s legitimacy crumbling before the world’s eyes. And they didn’t come at a time when worldwide instant communications make it impossible for the regime to black out the evidence of its suppression.

In warning us not to view the goings-on with unwarranted optimism, those expressing profound concern about what will come next in Egypt are performing a great service. We are heading into rough waters that had been largely stilled in recent decades. But that is why, perhaps, they should have been more supportive of the idea that Mubarak and others should have been pushed toward democratic reform so that the transition to change might have been managed rather than simply observed powerlessly as it turns into a runaway steamroller.

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Realpolitik vs. the Long-Term Good

One of the ironies of the present crisis in Egypt is that it is exposing once again the ridiculousness of one of the nasty slurs flung against neocons by the likes of John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt who accuse them of being — what else? — agents of Israel, Likud, the International Zionist Conspiracy, or whatever. To hear these realpolitikers tell it, when neocons advocate liberal reform in the Middle East, they are secretly doing the bidding of their Zionist puppet-masters to the detriment of American interests (as understood, of course, by the same folks who thought that Mubarak was a rock of stability — and before him, the Shah of Iran). In reality, most Israelis fall firmly in the realpolitik camp and, were it not for their knee-jerk Israel-bashing, would agree with Mearsheimer/Walt about how to define American interests in the Middle East. (Natan Sharansky, a prominent advocate of Arab democratization, is one of the few exceptions, but he is seen as very much an outlier.)

Consider this Reuters dispatch headlined “Israel Shocked by Obama’s ‘Betrayal’ of Mubarak.” It quotes some truly hysterical comments from Israeli commentators bemoaning the apparent end of the Mubarak regime. A sample:

One comment by Aviad Pohoryles in the daily Maariv was entitled “A Bullet in the Back from Uncle Sam.” It accused Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of pursuing a naive, smug, and insular diplomacy heedless of the risks.

Who is advising them, he asked, “to fuel the mob raging in the streets of Egypt and to demand the head of the person who five minutes ago was the bold ally of the president … an almost lone voice of sanity in a Middle East?”

“The politically correct diplomacy of American presidents throughout the generations … is painfully naive.”

This is the authentic voice of the Israeli public facing the loss of “their” man in Cairo. Like many Western realpolitikers, most Israelis I have spoken with assume that Arabs are incapable of practicing democracy and that any attempt to tinker with the stable if oppressive status quo in surrounding states will lead only to the creation of more anti-Israeli regimes. I have heard Israeli officials defend keeping in power the Assad regime in Syria, which is still technically at war with Israel. Needless to say, Israelis are even more devoted to Mubarak and the Hashemites in Jordan, who have actually made peace with them. Read More

One of the ironies of the present crisis in Egypt is that it is exposing once again the ridiculousness of one of the nasty slurs flung against neocons by the likes of John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt who accuse them of being — what else? — agents of Israel, Likud, the International Zionist Conspiracy, or whatever. To hear these realpolitikers tell it, when neocons advocate liberal reform in the Middle East, they are secretly doing the bidding of their Zionist puppet-masters to the detriment of American interests (as understood, of course, by the same folks who thought that Mubarak was a rock of stability — and before him, the Shah of Iran). In reality, most Israelis fall firmly in the realpolitik camp and, were it not for their knee-jerk Israel-bashing, would agree with Mearsheimer/Walt about how to define American interests in the Middle East. (Natan Sharansky, a prominent advocate of Arab democratization, is one of the few exceptions, but he is seen as very much an outlier.)

Consider this Reuters dispatch headlined “Israel Shocked by Obama’s ‘Betrayal’ of Mubarak.” It quotes some truly hysterical comments from Israeli commentators bemoaning the apparent end of the Mubarak regime. A sample:

One comment by Aviad Pohoryles in the daily Maariv was entitled “A Bullet in the Back from Uncle Sam.” It accused Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of pursuing a naive, smug, and insular diplomacy heedless of the risks.

Who is advising them, he asked, “to fuel the mob raging in the streets of Egypt and to demand the head of the person who five minutes ago was the bold ally of the president … an almost lone voice of sanity in a Middle East?”

“The politically correct diplomacy of American presidents throughout the generations … is painfully naive.”

This is the authentic voice of the Israeli public facing the loss of “their” man in Cairo. Like many Western realpolitikers, most Israelis I have spoken with assume that Arabs are incapable of practicing democracy and that any attempt to tinker with the stable if oppressive status quo in surrounding states will lead only to the creation of more anti-Israeli regimes. I have heard Israeli officials defend keeping in power the Assad regime in Syria, which is still technically at war with Israel. Needless to say, Israelis are even more devoted to Mubarak and the Hashemites in Jordan, who have actually made peace with them.

Their outlook is understandable, but, I believe, short-sighted. As I argue in the Wall Street Journal today, Mubarak may have been friendly with Israeli and American leaders, but he also turned a blind eye to the vile anti-Semitic and anti-Western propaganda spread by his state media, schools, and mosques. This, along with the stagnation of his sclerotic regime, has made Egypt a prime breeding ground for Islamist extremism.

The U.S. and Israel have bought ourselves some help from Mubarak over the past 30 years but at a high price. It was always obvious that the bargain couldn’t last forever, because Mubarak was intensely unpopular and would fall sooner or later. Some of us were arguing for years that the U.S. had to do more to pressure Mubarak to reform, even to hold hostage his American aid package (see, for instance, this 2006 op-ed I wrote). Our concerns were dismissed by the realpolitikers, in both the U.S. and Israel, who said it was no business of ours to meddle in Egyptian politics. Now events are spinning out of control and we can do little to affect the outcome.

If there is one lesson that should be drawn from this crisis it is that we can’t back an unpopular and illegitimate status quo indefinitely. Now is the time to push for real reform in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other allied states — not to mention in hostile states such as Syria and Iran. But I bet Israel will prefer to cling to its realpolitik policies.

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The Slap Heard Round the World

It is amazing that the political revolution now sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa was started by a 26-year-old unemployed Tunisian man who self-immolated.

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate whose fruits-and-vegetables market stand was confiscated by police because it had no permit, tried to yank back his apples. He was slapped in the face by a female municipal inspector and eventually beaten by her colleagues. His later appeals were ignored. Humiliated, he drenched himself in paint thinner and set himself on fire. He died on January 4.

That incident was the spark that set ablaze the revolution that overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for more than two decades — and that, in turn, spread to Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign of power is about to end. Anti-government protests are also happening in Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, and elsewhere. It’s hard to tell where all this will end; but how it began may rank among the more extraordinary hinge moments in history. It may come to be known as the Slap Heard Round the World.

How hopeful or fearful one feels about the unfolding events in Egypt depends in large measure on which revolutionary model one believes applies to this situation. Is it the French, Russian, or Iranian revolution, which ended with the guillotine, gulags, and an Islamic theocracy; or the American Revolution and what happened in the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Chile, and Argentina, authoritarian regimes that made a relatively smooth transition to self-government? Or is it something entirely different? Here it’s worth bearing in mind the counsel of Henry Kissinger, who wrote, “History is not … a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims. It can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations, yet each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.”

Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that the driving force of events in Egypt are tied to the universal human desire for liberty and free elections, for an end to political corruption and oppression. What the 2002 Arab Human Development Report called a “freedom deficit” in the Middle East is at the core of the unrest. Events seem to be vindicating those who said that siding with the forces of “stability” [read: dictatorships] rather than reform was unwise and ultimately unsustainable. At some point the lid would blow. Now it has. Read More

It is amazing that the political revolution now sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa was started by a 26-year-old unemployed Tunisian man who self-immolated.

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate whose fruits-and-vegetables market stand was confiscated by police because it had no permit, tried to yank back his apples. He was slapped in the face by a female municipal inspector and eventually beaten by her colleagues. His later appeals were ignored. Humiliated, he drenched himself in paint thinner and set himself on fire. He died on January 4.

That incident was the spark that set ablaze the revolution that overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for more than two decades — and that, in turn, spread to Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign of power is about to end. Anti-government protests are also happening in Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, and elsewhere. It’s hard to tell where all this will end; but how it began may rank among the more extraordinary hinge moments in history. It may come to be known as the Slap Heard Round the World.

How hopeful or fearful one feels about the unfolding events in Egypt depends in large measure on which revolutionary model one believes applies to this situation. Is it the French, Russian, or Iranian revolution, which ended with the guillotine, gulags, and an Islamic theocracy; or the American Revolution and what happened in the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Chile, and Argentina, authoritarian regimes that made a relatively smooth transition to self-government? Or is it something entirely different? Here it’s worth bearing in mind the counsel of Henry Kissinger, who wrote, “History is not … a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims. It can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations, yet each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.”

Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that the driving force of events in Egypt are tied to the universal human desire for liberty and free elections, for an end to political corruption and oppression. What the 2002 Arab Human Development Report called a “freedom deficit” in the Middle East is at the core of the unrest. Events seem to be vindicating those who said that siding with the forces of “stability” [read: dictatorships] rather than reform was unwise and ultimately unsustainable. At some point the lid would blow. Now it has.

The danger is that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which is hostile to Israel and close to Hamas, hijacks the revolution. The goal of U.S policy must therefore be to influence this revolution, to the degree we can, in a way that advances U.S. interests and American ideals. This means taking an active role, both publicly and behind the scenes, in support of those who stand for liberal democracy (for more, see here).

The hour has grown quite late. As Max Boot points out, the equivocation of the Obama administration needs to end. Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading Egyptian dissident who appears to be rapidly gaining power, is right when he said the United States is “losing credibility by the day” by its support for the Egyptian dictator. Mr. Mubarak is, politically speaking, a Dead Man Walking. There is still time, but not much time, for the president to get on the right side of this revolution and the right side of history. Secretary of State Clinton’s comments yesterday, in which she called for an “orderly transition” to a representative government, were certainly an improvement from where the administration was last week, when she was assuring the world of the staying power of Mr. Mubarak and Vice President Biden was declaring, against three decades of evidence, that the Egyptian president was not a dictator.

Having worked in three administrations and in the White House during a series of crises, I have some sympathy for how difficult it is to navigate through roiling waters, when one has to act on incomplete information in the midst of chaotic and constantly changing events, the outcome of which is impossible to know. In that respect, the Obama administration deserves some empathy. It’s never as easy to guide events when you’re in government as it is to critique events when you’re outside of government.

Still, as my former colleague William Inboden has written, it seems to me that the Obama administration can be held responsible for two important errors: (a) its failure to anticipate what is happening in Egypt and prepare contingency plans. and (b) its neglect of human rights, democracy, and economic reform in Egypt for the previous two years. “These failures should be front and center in any post-mortem policy review,” Professor Inboden writes. “The Mubarak regime’s brittleness and Egypt’s stagnation have long been apparent to many observers.” But not, apparently, to the Obama administration, which seems to have been caught completely off guard. If the spark that set the region afire was impossible to anticipate, the dry tinder of the region was not.

One Arab nation that so far hasn’t been convulsed by the political revolution now sweeping the Middle East is Iraq — the one Arab nation whose government is legitimate, the produce of free elections and political compromise, and that has the consent of the people. When it came to Iraqi democracy, most of the foreign-policy establishment assured us that self-government there could never take root, that Iraq would simply be a pawn of Iran, that the ethnic divisions in Iraq were too deep to overcome, and that (as Joe Biden argued at the time) the only solution was partition. At this stage, it’s reasonable to conclude that these judgments were quite wrong. And while one can certainly debate whether the Iraq war was worth the blood, treasure, and opportunities it cost, it appears as if the Egyptian people, and not only the Egyptian people, are longing for what the people of Iraq have embraced: self-government. It isn’t perfect by any means — but for the Arab Middle East, it is a model for other nations to aspire.

(h/t: Victor Davis Hanson)

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Some Unfashionable Thoughts About Egypt

Few moments in recent history have put political conservatism to the test like the ongoing uprising taking place in Egypt today. There are, after all, two different approaches to foreign policy that can be called “conservative”: one points to the spread of democracy as an expression of American greatness and seeks to sweep aside dictatorial rulers in order to promote democratic values, institutions, and elections wherever possible. The other is more strictly power-based: if America’s the good guy, then first we have to make sure that America’s allies are strong and its enemies are weak. Both approaches will point to Ronald Reagan as the ultimate example: the former for his unflinching fight against Soviet totalitarianism; the latter for his willingness to sometimes support less-than-democratic allies when the alternative was the further expansion of Soviet political and military dominance.

So what are we to make of Egypt? On the one hand, if the U.S. abandons Mubarak, it embraces democracy but loses heavily in the power calculus. By showing itself to be a fickle friend in times of need, America further erodes the confidence of all the other authoritarian allies in the Arab world who are forever fearful of the Iranian threat and who need to believe that the U.S. will really stand behind them.

At the same time, if America stands with Mubarak until the end, it risks (a) looking hypocritical in the face of what looks like a genuinely democratic (i.e., popular, spontaneous) uprising, and (b) repeating the mistakes made during the Iranian revolution, when the U.S. bet on the wrong horse, alienating the Iranian people by supporting the Shah, thus setting the stage for a whole generation of militant anti-American hostility in the Islamic Republic that emerged. Americans don’t want to make that mistake again.

Here in Israel, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of enthusiasm about the potential overthrow of Mubarak. Nobody has any illusions about his regime. And yet, the alternatives appear far worse. It’s true that there’s no single organized leadership behind the revolt. Both the more liberal and the Islamist oppositions were taken totally by surprise. The revolution is first of all about bread and jobs, much less about democratic ideals. In terms of ideas guiding it, there are very few other than “throw the bums out.” And this is exactly the problem. Read More

Few moments in recent history have put political conservatism to the test like the ongoing uprising taking place in Egypt today. There are, after all, two different approaches to foreign policy that can be called “conservative”: one points to the spread of democracy as an expression of American greatness and seeks to sweep aside dictatorial rulers in order to promote democratic values, institutions, and elections wherever possible. The other is more strictly power-based: if America’s the good guy, then first we have to make sure that America’s allies are strong and its enemies are weak. Both approaches will point to Ronald Reagan as the ultimate example: the former for his unflinching fight against Soviet totalitarianism; the latter for his willingness to sometimes support less-than-democratic allies when the alternative was the further expansion of Soviet political and military dominance.

So what are we to make of Egypt? On the one hand, if the U.S. abandons Mubarak, it embraces democracy but loses heavily in the power calculus. By showing itself to be a fickle friend in times of need, America further erodes the confidence of all the other authoritarian allies in the Arab world who are forever fearful of the Iranian threat and who need to believe that the U.S. will really stand behind them.

At the same time, if America stands with Mubarak until the end, it risks (a) looking hypocritical in the face of what looks like a genuinely democratic (i.e., popular, spontaneous) uprising, and (b) repeating the mistakes made during the Iranian revolution, when the U.S. bet on the wrong horse, alienating the Iranian people by supporting the Shah, thus setting the stage for a whole generation of militant anti-American hostility in the Islamic Republic that emerged. Americans don’t want to make that mistake again.

Here in Israel, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of enthusiasm about the potential overthrow of Mubarak. Nobody has any illusions about his regime. And yet, the alternatives appear far worse. It’s true that there’s no single organized leadership behind the revolt. Both the more liberal and the Islamist oppositions were taken totally by surprise. The revolution is first of all about bread and jobs, much less about democratic ideals. In terms of ideas guiding it, there are very few other than “throw the bums out.” And this is exactly the problem.

Leadership abhors a vacuum, and in the past 24 hours, we’ve seen that vacuum filled by Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize–winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who’s taken to the streets insisting that Mubarak pack up before he’s ridden through Cairo on a rail. He’s recently allied himself with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist militant organization closely allied with Hamas and up till now the leading opposition party to Mubarak. ElBaradei has repeatedly referred to Israel as the “number one threat to the Middle East” and has supported Hamas violence against Israel, saying that “the Israeli occupation only understands the language of violence.” As head of the IAEA, he’s been accused of doing more than anyone else to facilitate Iran’s nuclear efforts. And as Andrew McCarthy has pointed out, in the grand battle between American and Iranian influence in the region, a coalition of ElBaradei and the Muslim Brotherhood looks grim indeed.

It’s impossible to predict the future, not just what will happen a year from now, when Egypt could well go through a second revolution (as did Iran, indeed as did Russia way back when), but even whether Mubarak’s regime is in fact over. For now, the army is holding tight. Mubarak’s appointment of Omar Suleiman as the country’s first-ever vice president, and heir-apparent, was tailored to maintain support of the military for the regime. Nobody should be counting Mubarak out just yet.

Both the strength and weakness of political ideals is that they push heavily toward optimism. They allow us to see possibilities when everything looks grim. But they can also lead us to delusions about what can happen in the face of all evidence to the contrary. The fact is that Egypt doesn’t have much of a democratic tradition. Less so even than Lebanon, postwar Iraq, or the Palestinian Authority. If I had to make a guess about what will happen if Mubarak falls, I think it’s foolish to assume that a real democratic regime will emerge there, as opposed to a new dictatorship that is far less amenable to American interests. And if he doesn’t fall, the U.S. will have egg on its face for not backing him. That, too, will strengthen Iran.

None of the options looks terribly pleasing to Western eyes. But then again, Egypt isn’t a Western country, is it?

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Obama Must Act Now on Egypt

The president of the United States makes $400,000 a year. He has government-provided housing, a personal chef, his own helicopter and airplane, not to mention the best personal protection in the universe. It is at times like this that he really earns all those nice perks. There is no task more difficult than managing a revolution in progress. Jimmy Carter got it wrong in Nicaragua, and Iran and went down as a failure. Ronald Reagan got it right in the Philippines and South Korea, which contributed to the overall success of his presidency.

So far, I haven’t seen much evidence that Obama is earning his salary with his response to the revolution in Egypt. On Friday, he delivered an ultra-cautious statement, telling the “Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters” and saying that “the people of Egypt have rights,” including “the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech and the ability to determine their own destiny.” But he stopped well short of telling Hosni Mubarak, who is clearly on his last legs, that it was time for him to go — a message that Ronald Reagan memorably delivered via his friend Senator Paul Laxalt to Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

The New York Times explains Obama’s reticence by citing a “senior administration official” who said that “Mr. Obama warned that any overt effort by the United States to insert itself into easing Mr. Mubarak out, or easing a successor in, could backfire. ‘He said several times that the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events.’”

Problem is, taking no stand isn’t an option for the United States in this situation. For decades, Egypt has been one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid, and Mubarak has been one of our closest allies in the Middle East. Egyptian officers have been educated in the United States, its forces are equipped with American weapons, and they regularly conduct exercises with American troops. We have a large say, whether we want it or not. If Obama stays silent about Mubarak’s future, that will be interpreted within Egypt as American support for an increasingly discredited dictator. Read More

The president of the United States makes $400,000 a year. He has government-provided housing, a personal chef, his own helicopter and airplane, not to mention the best personal protection in the universe. It is at times like this that he really earns all those nice perks. There is no task more difficult than managing a revolution in progress. Jimmy Carter got it wrong in Nicaragua, and Iran and went down as a failure. Ronald Reagan got it right in the Philippines and South Korea, which contributed to the overall success of his presidency.

So far, I haven’t seen much evidence that Obama is earning his salary with his response to the revolution in Egypt. On Friday, he delivered an ultra-cautious statement, telling the “Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters” and saying that “the people of Egypt have rights,” including “the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech and the ability to determine their own destiny.” But he stopped well short of telling Hosni Mubarak, who is clearly on his last legs, that it was time for him to go — a message that Ronald Reagan memorably delivered via his friend Senator Paul Laxalt to Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

The New York Times explains Obama’s reticence by citing a “senior administration official” who said that “Mr. Obama warned that any overt effort by the United States to insert itself into easing Mr. Mubarak out, or easing a successor in, could backfire. ‘He said several times that the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events.’”

Problem is, taking no stand isn’t an option for the United States in this situation. For decades, Egypt has been one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid, and Mubarak has been one of our closest allies in the Middle East. Egyptian officers have been educated in the United States, its forces are equipped with American weapons, and they regularly conduct exercises with American troops. We have a large say, whether we want it or not. If Obama stays silent about Mubarak’s future, that will be interpreted within Egypt as American support for an increasingly discredited dictator.

The Working Group on Egypt, co-chaired by Bob Kagan and Michele Dunn at Brookings, suggests a more muscular response. They urge Obama to “call for free and fair elections for president and for parliament to be held as soon as possible” and for the government to “immediately lift the state of emergency” and “publicly declare that Mr. Mubarak will agree not to run for re-election.” And just to drive the point home: “We further recommend that the Obama administration suspend all economic and military assistance to Egypt until the government accepts and implements these measures.”

That’s more like it. The one recommendation I am not sold on is immediate elections (though, admittedly, there’s wiggle room in the phrase “as soon as possible”). As we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, elections that occur in an atmosphere of instability can exacerbate that instability. This is an especially tricky moment in Egypt because Mubarak has ruthlessly repressed the secular opposition. The only large nongovernmental organization in the country is the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamists would thus have an advantage in any immediate election, which could allow them to win, as Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, even though they have not been at the forefront of recent protests and most Egyptians would no doubt recoil from the imposition of an Iranian-style theocracy. (Whether the Brotherhood would in fact try to impose such a regime is unknown. Unfortunately, the only way to find out would be to let them take over.)

A safer alternative, to my mind, would be to call for Mubarak to step down immediately and hand over power to a transition government led by Mohammed ElBaradai, the secular technocrat who has recently returned to Egypt to become the most high-profile opposition leader. As is now happening in Tunisia, he could work with military support to prepare the way for elections in a suitable period of time — say in six months or a year.

But I think the Working Group is right to grasp that standing pat isn’t really an option anymore. In this case, the best advice was offered by a conservative Sicilian aristocrat, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, in his great novel The Leopard (1958), where he wrote that “everything must change so that everything can stay the same.”

In other words, if the U.S. is to have any hope of salvaging our alliance with Egypt, we need to embrace the change wanted by its people — not try to cling blindly to a past represented by Mubarak and his mini-me, the intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who has just been appointed vice president and putative successor.

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Uprising Goes Straight for the Canal

Navies and merchant fleets the world over are watching the riots in Egypt with concern. Friday’s news that protesters have attacked the main police station in the city of Suez is a grim development: it transforms the threat to the Suez Canal from a distant consideration to an immediate possibility. The port city of Suez overlooks the southern entrance to the canal; it hosts — along with Port Said, at the northern entrance on the Mediterranean side — Egypt’s security, administrative, and maritime-service forces. Ships queue up daily outside Port Suez to await the north-bound convoy through the canal, which leaves as soon as the south-bound convoy has finished its transit. Egypt provides security along the canal’s 120-mile length, a swath of desert abutting the 200-foot waterway on either side. Veterans of Suez transits know that nothing but armed vigilance will hinder enterprising terrorists or insurgents operating from the banks.

There can be no doubt that the uprising in Egypt, like the one in Tunisia, is fueled by popular sentiment. Ordinary Egyptians have many reasons to want to change their government. But reporting about the riots, in Suez and elsewhere, contains indications that the popular protests are being exploited by more organized groups. The police station in Suez was not stormed by a wave of bodies: it was firebombed by “protesters” wearing surgical masks. In a rural area of the northern Sinai, “protesters” fired RPGs at a police station from nearby rooftops, while several hundred Bedouins exchanged small-arms fire with police.

These are the not the typical actions of frustrated citizens. Mass protests, flag-waving, chanting, impromptu speeches, perhaps the burning of tires and garbage, as in Lebanon this week: these are the things angry citizens do, and the Egyptians have been doing them. But both Hamas and Hezbollah have recent histories of operating in the Sinai; the organized attacks on police are characteristic of their methods and weaponry. Egypt has been gravely concerned about the influence of their principal backer, Iran, for several years — and the organized attack on the main police station in the port city of Suez, situated on one of the world’s major choke points, bears the hallmark of Iranian strategic thinking.

As with Tunisia, the unrest in Egypt is erupting for good reasons and appears spontaneous. But self-appointed revolutionaries have long honed the art of exploiting popular unrest. We can expect Egypt to be beset by organized cells — some undoubtedly backed by Iran — in the coming days. The security of the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and the eastern Mediterranean is at risk. No outcome is predestined, but this uprising is attended by the same kinds of predators who have sought their fortunes in the uprisings of desperate peoples since 1789.

We are taking a detour back into history, if by a new route — and the same thing is true that has been true since the end of World War II: no nation other than the United States is capable of addressing this emerging problem with an equal concern for freedom and security. Other nations will have to form coalitions to take it on, if Obama’s America sits on the sidelines. We won’t like the outcome if it is handled that way.

Navies and merchant fleets the world over are watching the riots in Egypt with concern. Friday’s news that protesters have attacked the main police station in the city of Suez is a grim development: it transforms the threat to the Suez Canal from a distant consideration to an immediate possibility. The port city of Suez overlooks the southern entrance to the canal; it hosts — along with Port Said, at the northern entrance on the Mediterranean side — Egypt’s security, administrative, and maritime-service forces. Ships queue up daily outside Port Suez to await the north-bound convoy through the canal, which leaves as soon as the south-bound convoy has finished its transit. Egypt provides security along the canal’s 120-mile length, a swath of desert abutting the 200-foot waterway on either side. Veterans of Suez transits know that nothing but armed vigilance will hinder enterprising terrorists or insurgents operating from the banks.

There can be no doubt that the uprising in Egypt, like the one in Tunisia, is fueled by popular sentiment. Ordinary Egyptians have many reasons to want to change their government. But reporting about the riots, in Suez and elsewhere, contains indications that the popular protests are being exploited by more organized groups. The police station in Suez was not stormed by a wave of bodies: it was firebombed by “protesters” wearing surgical masks. In a rural area of the northern Sinai, “protesters” fired RPGs at a police station from nearby rooftops, while several hundred Bedouins exchanged small-arms fire with police.

These are the not the typical actions of frustrated citizens. Mass protests, flag-waving, chanting, impromptu speeches, perhaps the burning of tires and garbage, as in Lebanon this week: these are the things angry citizens do, and the Egyptians have been doing them. But both Hamas and Hezbollah have recent histories of operating in the Sinai; the organized attacks on police are characteristic of their methods and weaponry. Egypt has been gravely concerned about the influence of their principal backer, Iran, for several years — and the organized attack on the main police station in the port city of Suez, situated on one of the world’s major choke points, bears the hallmark of Iranian strategic thinking.

As with Tunisia, the unrest in Egypt is erupting for good reasons and appears spontaneous. But self-appointed revolutionaries have long honed the art of exploiting popular unrest. We can expect Egypt to be beset by organized cells — some undoubtedly backed by Iran — in the coming days. The security of the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and the eastern Mediterranean is at risk. No outcome is predestined, but this uprising is attended by the same kinds of predators who have sought their fortunes in the uprisings of desperate peoples since 1789.

We are taking a detour back into history, if by a new route — and the same thing is true that has been true since the end of World War II: no nation other than the United States is capable of addressing this emerging problem with an equal concern for freedom and security. Other nations will have to form coalitions to take it on, if Obama’s America sits on the sidelines. We won’t like the outcome if it is handled that way.

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Iranian-Funded Press TV’s British Bank Accounts Frozen

Press TV, the international news organization and propaganda arm of the Iranian government, has had its British bank account frozen, the Times of London reported today.

The frozen account is thought to contain more than $140,000 (100,000 euros), and National Westminster Bank is expected to close it shortly.

And while National Westminster Bank said the move was a “private commercial decision over which the Government has no control,” there has been speculation by both critics and supporters of the news station that politics may have played a part in the decision.

Lauren Booth — the Israel-bashing sister-in-law of Tony Blair — has written a barely legible opinion column for Al Jazeera, blaming the freeze on Zionism, the Blair machine, and American imperialism (errors in the original):

“The freezing of Press TV Ltd business account by Nat West Bank, is a politically motivated act,” wrote Booth. “The bank accounts of those companies who bring uncomfortable truths into the public domain, can now be closed as part of a political agenda, eliciting from the USA. Supported by the Nat West and Her Majesty’s Government.”

Booth compared it to a similar incident in 2007, when National Westminster Bank shuttered the account of a Hamas-linked Palestinian “charity” called Interpal. The bank said it closed the account under pressure from the U.S. legal system.

And it’s possible that similar concerns could have prompted the bank to freeze Press TV’s account as well. Legally, the Iranian-government-funded news organization may be subject to Iranian sanctions.

“[I]t is not surprising that an international bank like Nat West has frozen the accounts of a propaganda station, funded entirely by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is increasingly subject to international financial and trade sanctions in the European Union and the United States,” wrote Alan A. at the conservative blog Harry’s Place.

Whatever the reason for the freeze, hopefully it’ll lead to some more government scrutiny for Press TV. The fake news station not only devotes itself to publishing constant anti-American and anti-Israel propaganda; it’s also issued news reports denying the Holocaust and claiming that the Mossad helped commit the 9/11 attacks. At the very least, the government should require the station to provide a content warning informing viewers that it’s funded entirely by the Iranian government.

Press TV, the international news organization and propaganda arm of the Iranian government, has had its British bank account frozen, the Times of London reported today.

The frozen account is thought to contain more than $140,000 (100,000 euros), and National Westminster Bank is expected to close it shortly.

And while National Westminster Bank said the move was a “private commercial decision over which the Government has no control,” there has been speculation by both critics and supporters of the news station that politics may have played a part in the decision.

Lauren Booth — the Israel-bashing sister-in-law of Tony Blair — has written a barely legible opinion column for Al Jazeera, blaming the freeze on Zionism, the Blair machine, and American imperialism (errors in the original):

“The freezing of Press TV Ltd business account by Nat West Bank, is a politically motivated act,” wrote Booth. “The bank accounts of those companies who bring uncomfortable truths into the public domain, can now be closed as part of a political agenda, eliciting from the USA. Supported by the Nat West and Her Majesty’s Government.”

Booth compared it to a similar incident in 2007, when National Westminster Bank shuttered the account of a Hamas-linked Palestinian “charity” called Interpal. The bank said it closed the account under pressure from the U.S. legal system.

And it’s possible that similar concerns could have prompted the bank to freeze Press TV’s account as well. Legally, the Iranian-government-funded news organization may be subject to Iranian sanctions.

“[I]t is not surprising that an international bank like Nat West has frozen the accounts of a propaganda station, funded entirely by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is increasingly subject to international financial and trade sanctions in the European Union and the United States,” wrote Alan A. at the conservative blog Harry’s Place.

Whatever the reason for the freeze, hopefully it’ll lead to some more government scrutiny for Press TV. The fake news station not only devotes itself to publishing constant anti-American and anti-Israel propaganda; it’s also issued news reports denying the Holocaust and claiming that the Mossad helped commit the 9/11 attacks. At the very least, the government should require the station to provide a content warning informing viewers that it’s funded entirely by the Iranian government.

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Is It 1848 in the Arab World?

The riots that toppled Tunisia’s strong man on January 14 spread on Tuesday to Egypt, which is in its third day of rioting. Today riots have broken out in Yemen. Where next? Could the rioting spread to non-Arab parts of the Middle East, such as Iran and/or Pakistan?

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that “all successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door.” The regimes that appear strong, with massive security forces, are suddenly revealed to be hollow. This is what happened in Tunisia. Ben Ali, in power since 1987, fled to Saudi Arabia after riots started when a fruit vendor immolated himself after his wares were seized by a government agent because he lacked a license to peddle fruit. It has been, on the scale of things, a relatively bloodless revolution, at least so far.

Egypt, of course, is a much larger country, with a population of 83 million, while Tunisia has only a little over 10 million. And Egypt is among the most densely populated countries on earth when you take into account the fact that more than 90 percent of it is essentially uninhabited desert. A popular revolt there could get very messy indeed.

It is all reminiscent of Europe in 1848, when a revolution in France that toppled the regime of King Louis-Philippe spread like a wildfire to Germany, Denmark, Italy, Prussia, and the Hapsburg Empire. Even Switzerland had a brief civil war. King William II of the Netherlands, afraid for his own throne, ordered changes in the constitution that resulted in a constitutional monarchy. The Chartist movement in Britain had a meeting on Kensington Common that numbered perhaps 150,000 people. They presented a mammoth petition to Parliament, but the meeting remained peaceful.

While many regimes survived and were able to reassert autocratic power before long (France’s Second Republic lasted only four years before its president, Louis Napoleon, converted it into the Second Empire, with himself as Napoleon III), the pace of political change in Europe accelerated markedly after 1848, as the Industrial Revolution continued. (The phrase Industrial Revolution was, in fact, coined in 1848.)

Will 2011 prove to be the 1848 of the Middle East? If the doors are rotten enough, it will.

The riots that toppled Tunisia’s strong man on January 14 spread on Tuesday to Egypt, which is in its third day of rioting. Today riots have broken out in Yemen. Where next? Could the rioting spread to non-Arab parts of the Middle East, such as Iran and/or Pakistan?

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that “all successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door.” The regimes that appear strong, with massive security forces, are suddenly revealed to be hollow. This is what happened in Tunisia. Ben Ali, in power since 1987, fled to Saudi Arabia after riots started when a fruit vendor immolated himself after his wares were seized by a government agent because he lacked a license to peddle fruit. It has been, on the scale of things, a relatively bloodless revolution, at least so far.

Egypt, of course, is a much larger country, with a population of 83 million, while Tunisia has only a little over 10 million. And Egypt is among the most densely populated countries on earth when you take into account the fact that more than 90 percent of it is essentially uninhabited desert. A popular revolt there could get very messy indeed.

It is all reminiscent of Europe in 1848, when a revolution in France that toppled the regime of King Louis-Philippe spread like a wildfire to Germany, Denmark, Italy, Prussia, and the Hapsburg Empire. Even Switzerland had a brief civil war. King William II of the Netherlands, afraid for his own throne, ordered changes in the constitution that resulted in a constitutional monarchy. The Chartist movement in Britain had a meeting on Kensington Common that numbered perhaps 150,000 people. They presented a mammoth petition to Parliament, but the meeting remained peaceful.

While many regimes survived and were able to reassert autocratic power before long (France’s Second Republic lasted only four years before its president, Louis Napoleon, converted it into the Second Empire, with himself as Napoleon III), the pace of political change in Europe accelerated markedly after 1848, as the Industrial Revolution continued. (The phrase Industrial Revolution was, in fact, coined in 1848.)

Will 2011 prove to be the 1848 of the Middle East? If the doors are rotten enough, it will.

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Irrelevance Is a Choice

The Obama administration is making policy with its effective silence on the events in Lebanon, Tunisia, and Egypt. As Rick and Max both pointed out, Obama last night said nothing that mattered about these portentous developments. Hillary Clinton’s State Department has been notable only for its meaningless bromides. Clinton herself crowned a week of ineffectual gestures by expressing the “hope” today “that it will be the people of Lebanon themselves, not outside forces, that will sustain the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon.”

We’ve been watching the Hezbollah train wreck unfold for nearly two weeks now, and the U.S. government is doing nothing. It doesn’t even matter if there are minor things being done in secret somewhere: the Hezbollah coup in Lebanon and the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are the kinds of events that cry out for public statements of U.S. policy, interests, and intention. The most important thing our president can do is frame the issues of freedom, consensual government, and national self-determination as strategic interests of the United States and the community of nations.

These are not abstractions we are dealing with. It’s not as if the locations in question are distant from global tradeways. They are hardly irrelevant to the security of our allies or the worldwide threat of Islamist terrorism. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the aspirants to regional leadership with the potential of countering Iran’s influence, have stepped back from Lebanon to regroup. Their prospects have, until now, always depended on a reliably dominant and interested posture from the United States — but that condition is absent today. Their abandonment of the unity-government process in Lebanon is an even more significant development than Hezbollah’s outmaneuvering of France and the last-minute, Sarkozy-sponsored “contact group.”

I’m not sure the Obama administration understands what many in the blogosphere have already seen: that a geopolitical transformation is underway — one more fundamental than any we have seen since 1945. There was always a likelihood that modern Arab peoples would rise up against their despotic leaders. And we have known for years what Hezbollah was up to in Lebanon. But it was not and is not inevitable that their dramas would play out without intervention from or reference to the United States. That aspect of the events is our president’s choice.

“Smart power” — diplomacy, rhetoric, engagement, aid, the forming of coalitions, the leveraging of the UN, the dispatching of singular individuals as envoys and inspirational leaders — these measures are exactly what is called for in the current circumstances. U.S. leadership in the Lebanese crisis — which would have benefited from common goals with France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia — could have signaled Hezbollah that the time was not ripe for a summary action. A similar principle applies to Tunisia and Egypt; engagement and the guarding of our interests could be quite effective without having a military character.

But instead of smart power, there is simply a void. The nature of democratic leadership is to act visibly, openly, and persuasively; if there are no visible actions being taken, there is no leadership. The cost of this feckless inaction will be very high, but there has been nothing dictating our posture of disengagement. Each step of the way, it has been a choice.

The Obama administration is making policy with its effective silence on the events in Lebanon, Tunisia, and Egypt. As Rick and Max both pointed out, Obama last night said nothing that mattered about these portentous developments. Hillary Clinton’s State Department has been notable only for its meaningless bromides. Clinton herself crowned a week of ineffectual gestures by expressing the “hope” today “that it will be the people of Lebanon themselves, not outside forces, that will sustain the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon.”

We’ve been watching the Hezbollah train wreck unfold for nearly two weeks now, and the U.S. government is doing nothing. It doesn’t even matter if there are minor things being done in secret somewhere: the Hezbollah coup in Lebanon and the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are the kinds of events that cry out for public statements of U.S. policy, interests, and intention. The most important thing our president can do is frame the issues of freedom, consensual government, and national self-determination as strategic interests of the United States and the community of nations.

These are not abstractions we are dealing with. It’s not as if the locations in question are distant from global tradeways. They are hardly irrelevant to the security of our allies or the worldwide threat of Islamist terrorism. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the aspirants to regional leadership with the potential of countering Iran’s influence, have stepped back from Lebanon to regroup. Their prospects have, until now, always depended on a reliably dominant and interested posture from the United States — but that condition is absent today. Their abandonment of the unity-government process in Lebanon is an even more significant development than Hezbollah’s outmaneuvering of France and the last-minute, Sarkozy-sponsored “contact group.”

I’m not sure the Obama administration understands what many in the blogosphere have already seen: that a geopolitical transformation is underway — one more fundamental than any we have seen since 1945. There was always a likelihood that modern Arab peoples would rise up against their despotic leaders. And we have known for years what Hezbollah was up to in Lebanon. But it was not and is not inevitable that their dramas would play out without intervention from or reference to the United States. That aspect of the events is our president’s choice.

“Smart power” — diplomacy, rhetoric, engagement, aid, the forming of coalitions, the leveraging of the UN, the dispatching of singular individuals as envoys and inspirational leaders — these measures are exactly what is called for in the current circumstances. U.S. leadership in the Lebanese crisis — which would have benefited from common goals with France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia — could have signaled Hezbollah that the time was not ripe for a summary action. A similar principle applies to Tunisia and Egypt; engagement and the guarding of our interests could be quite effective without having a military character.

But instead of smart power, there is simply a void. The nature of democratic leadership is to act visibly, openly, and persuasively; if there are no visible actions being taken, there is no leadership. The cost of this feckless inaction will be very high, but there has been nothing dictating our posture of disengagement. Each step of the way, it has been a choice.

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Middle East Optimism Requires Blinders

Optimism about peace between Israel and the Palestinians has always been a matter of religious faith rather than rational analysis. Every new proof that the process begun in 1993 with the Oslo Accords was based on false premises must be dismissed or ignored simply because believers in peace insist it is possible and because they wish it be so. While the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has not generally been among the most dogged optimists about peace, he was still willing to co-author a 2,200-word essay with Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine published on today’s New York Times op-ed page that argues that despite the evidence of our lying eyes, there is still plenty of room for belief that the process can be revived.

Their thesis rests on the idea that changes in the political cultures of both Israel and the Palestinians make progress inevitable. It is true that there is an overwhelming consensus within Israel in favor of a two-state solution and that even the supposedly intransigent right-wing government of the country has made it clear it is ready to accept a Palestinian state. It is also true that the Palestinian Authority under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad has made great strides toward making the territories a better place for its inhabitants, though Goldberg and Ibish overestimate the PA’s abandonment of anti-Semitic incitement and the language of delegitimization of Israel. The PA has also created a security apparatus that has been allowed greater scope by the Israelis, and Abbas and Fayyad understand it is in their interest to clamp down on terrorism.

These are factors that theoretically ought to allow the two sides to come to an agreement and finally make peace. But that hasn’t happened. The reason is that the less-hopeful developments of the past few years are still far more important in determining whether the conflict can be brought to an end. Read More

Optimism about peace between Israel and the Palestinians has always been a matter of religious faith rather than rational analysis. Every new proof that the process begun in 1993 with the Oslo Accords was based on false premises must be dismissed or ignored simply because believers in peace insist it is possible and because they wish it be so. While the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has not generally been among the most dogged optimists about peace, he was still willing to co-author a 2,200-word essay with Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine published on today’s New York Times op-ed page that argues that despite the evidence of our lying eyes, there is still plenty of room for belief that the process can be revived.

Their thesis rests on the idea that changes in the political cultures of both Israel and the Palestinians make progress inevitable. It is true that there is an overwhelming consensus within Israel in favor of a two-state solution and that even the supposedly intransigent right-wing government of the country has made it clear it is ready to accept a Palestinian state. It is also true that the Palestinian Authority under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad has made great strides toward making the territories a better place for its inhabitants, though Goldberg and Ibish overestimate the PA’s abandonment of anti-Semitic incitement and the language of delegitimization of Israel. The PA has also created a security apparatus that has been allowed greater scope by the Israelis, and Abbas and Fayyad understand it is in their interest to clamp down on terrorism.

These are factors that theoretically ought to allow the two sides to come to an agreement and finally make peace. But that hasn’t happened. The reason is that the less-hopeful developments of the past few years are still far more important in determining whether the conflict can be brought to an end.

The chief of these is the power of Hamas. Optimists like Goldberg acknowledge the fact that Gaza is a Hamas state and that no peace can be signed without its agreement. Unacknowledged in the Goldberg-Ibish piece is the fact that Abbas’s hold on the West Bank rests not on his legitimacy or the strength of his forces but on Israel’s unwillingness to allow it to fall into the hands of Hamas, as happened in Gaza in 2006. After all, Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert offered Abbas a state in the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem in 2008 and was turned down flat. President Obama’s foolish insistence on an Israeli settlement freeze even in those areas (as the recently released Al Jazeera documents show) the PA had already agreed would stay in Israeli hands has made it impossible for those talks to be renewed. But even if Abbas were to return to the table, he would be faced with the same dilemma he had before. Were he to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders were drawn, he would face the wrath of his own people (as the reaction from the released documents proves), and even Israel’s support might not be enough to keep him in power, or alive.

Goldberg and Ibish conclude their lengthy article by calling for both Netanyahu and Abbas to visit the other side and acknowledge their antagonists’ respective rights and pain much in the way that Anwar Sadat and King Hussein of Jordan once did. But they forget that the original Oslo Accords were just such an acknowledgment, and that while Israelis swooned over such gestures (even though Yasir Arafat’s credibility was very much doubtful), Palestinians merely took Israel’s willingness to make concessions as a sign of weakness and lack of faith in the rightness of their cause. Moreover, Abbas doesn’t dare do more. In a region where both Israel and the PA are faced with the growing influence of Iran and its allies Hezbollah (which is moving toward control of Lebanon) and Hamas, the tide of extremism is more than a match for Fayyad’s pragmatism. Under such circumstances, optimism about peace requires the sort of tunnel vision that comes only with blind faith.

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The Peepless SOTU Address

Judith Levy at Ricochet is surprised Obama said not a peep about the peace process (“I could have sworn it was a fairly high priority for the administration”). She understands the lack of a peep about Egypt (“Hey, it’s fresh; it’s complicated. Cut the guy some slack.”). But she is Whiskey Tango Foxtrot incredulous about the peepless issue of Lebanon:

How do you not mention Lebanon after what happened this week? A US-friendly prime minister — a guy you just hosted in the Oval Office two weeks ago, Mr. President; remember him? — was overthrown by an Iran- and Syria-backed terrorist organization that assassinated his pro-Western father and has handpicked his successor. Hello?

In last year’s SOTU address, Obama extolled America’s “engagement” around the world:

As we have for over 60 years, America takes these actions because our destiny is connected to those beyond our shores.  But we also do it because it is right. … That’s why we stand with the girl who yearns to go to school in Afghanistan; why we support the human rights of the women marching through the streets of Iran; why we advocate for the young man denied a job by corruption in Guinea. For America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity. (Applause.) Always. (Applause.)

Last night, the only peeps on this subject were his praise for the vote in south Sudan and “that same desire to be free in Tunisia.” At least Tunisia got the coveted let-me-be-clear moment, in a sentence that perhaps technically also covered Egypt and Lebanon:

And tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people. (Applause.)

Judith Levy at Ricochet is surprised Obama said not a peep about the peace process (“I could have sworn it was a fairly high priority for the administration”). She understands the lack of a peep about Egypt (“Hey, it’s fresh; it’s complicated. Cut the guy some slack.”). But she is Whiskey Tango Foxtrot incredulous about the peepless issue of Lebanon:

How do you not mention Lebanon after what happened this week? A US-friendly prime minister — a guy you just hosted in the Oval Office two weeks ago, Mr. President; remember him? — was overthrown by an Iran- and Syria-backed terrorist organization that assassinated his pro-Western father and has handpicked his successor. Hello?

In last year’s SOTU address, Obama extolled America’s “engagement” around the world:

As we have for over 60 years, America takes these actions because our destiny is connected to those beyond our shores.  But we also do it because it is right. … That’s why we stand with the girl who yearns to go to school in Afghanistan; why we support the human rights of the women marching through the streets of Iran; why we advocate for the young man denied a job by corruption in Guinea. For America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity. (Applause.) Always. (Applause.)

Last night, the only peeps on this subject were his praise for the vote in south Sudan and “that same desire to be free in Tunisia.” At least Tunisia got the coveted let-me-be-clear moment, in a sentence that perhaps technically also covered Egypt and Lebanon:

And tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people. (Applause.)

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Oh, Man, Not Another Sputnik Moment …

I keep a list of historical analogies — derived from years of grading papers — that tell me that the individual using them is (to be polite) more interested in rhetorical impact than historical accuracy. Before last night, the list began with “we need a Marshall Plan for X,” where X usually equals Africa or the Middle East, and ended with “the United States is a young country.” Both are fallacies: the Marshall Plan was a pump-priming program, not an effort to rebuild the infrastructure and remake the culture of half a continent; and while European settlement of North America is fairly recent, the U.S.’s political institutions have a longer continuous existence than those of any other country except, arguably, the United Kingdom.

Now, thanks to President Obama, I’ve got a third analogy to add to the list: “Sputnik moment.” To be fair, I should have added it years ago. The phrase, according to Google, has popped in and out of the news regularly over the past decade, with the president himself beginning to use it last June, in a speech in North Carolina. The analogy has the advantage of being an example of government spending — we now call it “investment,” I am told — that has not been utterly discredited by succeeding events. But that doesn’t make it correct.

First, as my colleague Jim Carafano pointed out back in September, Ike’s response to Sputnik’s launch wasn’t to pull out the checkbook. That was what the Gaither Report called for, but Eisenhower balked: as I noted recently, Ike was no softie on Communism, but he was also concerned by the threat to American liberties “posed not so much by big government as such, but by top-down direction of all kinds. Much of this originated in the federal government, but not at all it: there was also a risk of becoming ‘the captive of a scientific-technological elite.’ ” A striking phrase, especially in light of President Obama’s desire to expand government for the benefit of that elite.

Second, the launch of Sputnik marked a significant new national-security threat posed by a state with a hostile ideology, which we were already confronting around the world. If the USSR could orbit a satellite, it could launch a nuclear missile and vaporize an American city. If Sputnik had been orbited by, say, Britain, it would not have occasioned nearly as much angst. In other words, you can’t have a Sputnik moment absent a hostile superpower to provide the impetus for concern. I would not categorize the U.S.’s relationship with China or, certainly, India, as particularly similar to the one we had with the USSR — and the president went out of his way last night not to criticize foreign regimes (even ones like Iran, which are hostile and have, in fact, orbited a satellite). So where is the drive that will be necessary to sustain this “moment” going to come from? Certainly not from the White House. Read More

I keep a list of historical analogies — derived from years of grading papers — that tell me that the individual using them is (to be polite) more interested in rhetorical impact than historical accuracy. Before last night, the list began with “we need a Marshall Plan for X,” where X usually equals Africa or the Middle East, and ended with “the United States is a young country.” Both are fallacies: the Marshall Plan was a pump-priming program, not an effort to rebuild the infrastructure and remake the culture of half a continent; and while European settlement of North America is fairly recent, the U.S.’s political institutions have a longer continuous existence than those of any other country except, arguably, the United Kingdom.

Now, thanks to President Obama, I’ve got a third analogy to add to the list: “Sputnik moment.” To be fair, I should have added it years ago. The phrase, according to Google, has popped in and out of the news regularly over the past decade, with the president himself beginning to use it last June, in a speech in North Carolina. The analogy has the advantage of being an example of government spending — we now call it “investment,” I am told — that has not been utterly discredited by succeeding events. But that doesn’t make it correct.

First, as my colleague Jim Carafano pointed out back in September, Ike’s response to Sputnik’s launch wasn’t to pull out the checkbook. That was what the Gaither Report called for, but Eisenhower balked: as I noted recently, Ike was no softie on Communism, but he was also concerned by the threat to American liberties “posed not so much by big government as such, but by top-down direction of all kinds. Much of this originated in the federal government, but not at all it: there was also a risk of becoming ‘the captive of a scientific-technological elite.’ ” A striking phrase, especially in light of President Obama’s desire to expand government for the benefit of that elite.

Second, the launch of Sputnik marked a significant new national-security threat posed by a state with a hostile ideology, which we were already confronting around the world. If the USSR could orbit a satellite, it could launch a nuclear missile and vaporize an American city. If Sputnik had been orbited by, say, Britain, it would not have occasioned nearly as much angst. In other words, you can’t have a Sputnik moment absent a hostile superpower to provide the impetus for concern. I would not categorize the U.S.’s relationship with China or, certainly, India, as particularly similar to the one we had with the USSR — and the president went out of his way last night not to criticize foreign regimes (even ones like Iran, which are hostile and have, in fact, orbited a satellite). So where is the drive that will be necessary to sustain this “moment” going to come from? Certainly not from the White House.

Third, and most basically, I sometimes get the sense that the left doesn’t realize that 1890-2010 has already happened. A rule of life is that you can only do things for the first time once. We’ve tried the Progressive, administrative state, and have been trying it for years: its deficiencies are not going to be fixed by pretending in an “Ah ha!” moment that what we need is more administration. We’ve been trying Keynesianism almost continuously since the 1940s and even before the recession were at levels of government spending that Keynes experienced only during World War II: the idea that Keynes offers some sort of untried miracle cure is, to be nice about it, a fantasy. Since 1970, as Andrew Coulson points out, federal spending adjusted for inflation has increased by 190 percent, with no gains in reading, math, or science scores to show for it. None of these ideas are new. On the contrary: they are very, very old.

Leaving all this aside, I have to ask — does the proclamation of a new “Sputnik moment” work even as rhetoric? It certainly leaves me cold. The reason for that is, partly, because it’s not great history. But, more fundamentally, it’s because it’s so obviously instrumental. The president wants to look like he’s cutting the budget but also wants to spend more money. So he grabs at the NASA argument, the Sputnik analogy, the Internet analogy, and anything else that comes to hand. Rhetoric that’s shaped by this kind of desperation comes across as insincere. It might be more effective for the president to simply state his belief that we need to spend more money on education. He’d be wrong on the merits, but at least he wouldn’t be compounding the error with dubious grab-bag analogies.

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Obama’s Moment to Redefine the Modern Middle East

Somehow it’s hard to get too worked up about the formalized rituals of the State of the Union when real news is happening half a world away. In the Middle East, revolutions, for good and for ill, are breaking out, while back in Washington, President Obama is touting the latest clean-energy boondoggles. All he had to say about the ongoing, exciting events was one line: “the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of the people.” What about the people of Lebanon? Or of Egypt? Don’t they deserve support too? And don’t the Tunisians battling for democracy against the security forces of the old regime deserve more than a throwaway line near the end of an hour-long address?

It is quite possible, even likely, that recent upheavals will amount to little. Many people, myself included, got our hopes up in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution overthrew Syrian domination in Lebanon and the people of Iraq turned out in droves to vote. Those hopes were swiftly dashed; indeed, this week the representative of the Cedar Revolution, Saad Hariri, ignominiously lost the prime minister’s job as Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran flexed their muscles. But it is also possible — not likely but possible — that the toppling of the Tunisian regime could have a ripple effect in this sclerotic region. This could be the most important moment for American diplomacy since the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

Certainly there is little precedent for the mass outpouring of protest in Egypt against the Mubarak regime, which is just as decrepit as was the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. The stakes in Egypt, however, are much higher, given that it’s much bigger than Tunisia and has a much larger, active Muslim Brotherhood that could take advantage of chaos to seize power.

At a moment like this, it would be comforting to see in the Oval Office an old diplomatic hand like George H.W. Bush — and I say this as someone who was never a big fan of the elder Bush. I do think, however, that despite some missteps (google the Chicken Kiev speech if you’re under 40), he did a brilliant job of managing a volatile situation. I do not mean to slight the contributions of brave dissidents or even of Mikhail Gorbachev, but nevertheless, the creation of democracies across Eastern Europe is in substantial measure the legacy of Ronald Reagan and his predecessors going back to Truman, who confronted the “evil empire,” and of Bush the Elder, who skillfully managed its dissolution. Read More

Somehow it’s hard to get too worked up about the formalized rituals of the State of the Union when real news is happening half a world away. In the Middle East, revolutions, for good and for ill, are breaking out, while back in Washington, President Obama is touting the latest clean-energy boondoggles. All he had to say about the ongoing, exciting events was one line: “the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of the people.” What about the people of Lebanon? Or of Egypt? Don’t they deserve support too? And don’t the Tunisians battling for democracy against the security forces of the old regime deserve more than a throwaway line near the end of an hour-long address?

It is quite possible, even likely, that recent upheavals will amount to little. Many people, myself included, got our hopes up in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution overthrew Syrian domination in Lebanon and the people of Iraq turned out in droves to vote. Those hopes were swiftly dashed; indeed, this week the representative of the Cedar Revolution, Saad Hariri, ignominiously lost the prime minister’s job as Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran flexed their muscles. But it is also possible — not likely but possible — that the toppling of the Tunisian regime could have a ripple effect in this sclerotic region. This could be the most important moment for American diplomacy since the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

Certainly there is little precedent for the mass outpouring of protest in Egypt against the Mubarak regime, which is just as decrepit as was the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. The stakes in Egypt, however, are much higher, given that it’s much bigger than Tunisia and has a much larger, active Muslim Brotherhood that could take advantage of chaos to seize power.

At a moment like this, it would be comforting to see in the Oval Office an old diplomatic hand like George H.W. Bush — and I say this as someone who was never a big fan of the elder Bush. I do think, however, that despite some missteps (google the Chicken Kiev speech if you’re under 40), he did a brilliant job of managing a volatile situation. I do not mean to slight the contributions of brave dissidents or even of Mikhail Gorbachev, but nevertheless, the creation of democracies across Eastern Europe is in substantial measure the legacy of Ronald Reagan and his predecessors going back to Truman, who confronted the “evil empire,” and of Bush the Elder, who skillfully managed its dissolution.

Unfortunately, instead of someone like Bush, who had served as an ambassador, CIA director, and vice president, we have in the Oval Office a president with no foreign-policy credentials. This president seems to think that the entire region revolves around the moribund Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” Already Obama missed a crucial opportunity in the summer of 2009 to encourage the Green Revolution in Iran. Let us hope that will be a learning experience. This time around, we need a president fully engaged in the moment — a president who will speak for the aspirations of the people of the Middle East (more than one line, please), while also working to provide a soft landing for longtime dictators and to ensure that radicals don’t seize power.

For all his lack of experience, Obama is no newcomer to the job. He is a fast learner, and he has a gift for rhetoric the likes of which always eluded George H.W. Bush. This may very well be his moment: the moment for redefining the modern Middle East. He should seize it — if he’s not too distracted with the domestic priorities that as usual dominated the State of the Union.

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