It has become fashionable to talk about the Egyptian revolt as “not about the United States” or “beyond our control.” There is a small measure of commonsense truth to this observation. But usually it is offered up as an expression of glee by declinists who believe America will soon and inexorably cease to be a player on the global stage. About this, they are mistaken. In fact, events in Egypt prove that the continued reach of American power is very real. The only thing in doubt is whether the Obama administration chooses to wield it.
Some on this blog have commented on the connection between President George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda and the popular revolution that seized Egypt last week. Most of this commentary has rightly pointed to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak as a vindication of Bush’s political worldview, which posits individual liberty as the desire of all humankind.
But the story doesn’t end there. As Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami said on Fox News: “[Bush] can definitely claim paternity. … One despot fell in 2003. We decapitated him. Two despots, in Tunisia and Egypt, fell, and there is absolutely a direct connection between what happened in Iraq in 2003 and what’s happening today throughout the rest of the Arab world.” The American toppling of Saddam and the effort to establish Iraqi democracy, however flawed, made consensual Arab governance irrefutably thinkable.
But if that connection is not solid enough to satisfy declinists, consider how Barack Obama’s predecessor — with a good deal of help from Liz Cheney — directly impacted the cause of Egyptian democracy. The Boston Globe reports that the “administration increased funding for good governance and democracy in Egypt, from $3.5 million in 2005 to $55 million in 2008.” When it became clear that too much of that money found its way into the wrong hands, Liz Cheney’s project within the State Department, the Middle East Partnership Initiative, began conscientiously funneling aid to independent democracy groups in Egypt. It is well known that the administration regrettably backtracked on the Freedom Agenda in its last years. And as the article notes: “When Obama took office, his administration halved the amount of money available for democracy funding in Egypt, to $20 million in 2008, and allowed Egypt to have a veto again over some funds.”
Nevertheless, the program put in place by Bush was able to dispatch 13,000 election monitors to Egypt for last December’s parliamentary elections. Their ability to record and publicize the electoral fraud they witnessed was a crucial factor in the unrest that followed. “In a way or another, it helped what is happening right now,’’ said Mahmoud Ali Mohamed, head of the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democracy. Saad Ibrahim, founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, said, “The very fact that they saw the fraud firsthand has contributed to them turning from monitors into activists.”
While the Western left and the incoherent cynics who now label themselves “realist” celebrate American ineffectiveness abroad, they have not bothered to consider how a 30-year-old dictatorship came unexpectedly to crumble before an Arab population demanding representative government. In equating American power only with bombs and tanks, the anti-neocon brigade allowed itself to be blindsided, just like the Mubarak regime. Despite their fervent wishes, the U.S. still has the ability to project power and effect change around the world. We have, to some degree, just witnessed that in historic fashion. It goes without saying that the Egyptian people are to be credited and commended for having stood up bravely to a deadly, despotic regime. But what’s not said enough is that America can play a critical role in helping its brave allies — real allies — change the course of history. It is up to Barack Obama to continue to use American leverage in Egypt. If he follows the wisdom of the declinists, we will witness more than the relative weakening of American influence. The U.S. will have set the stage for the unprecedented deterioration of freedoms in a convulsing Middle East and beyond.