I have already compared the trial of 16 Americans, along with a number of Egyptians, in an Egyptian court on trumped-up charges of violating various laws to the Iranian hostage crisis in terms of the challenge it poses to American power. There is another similarity worth noting: In both cases we were in some sense reaping what we sowed.

Much of the reason Iranians were so anti-American in 1979, after all, was the unlimited backing we had given to an unpopular dictator, the Shah. Likewise, much of the reason Egyptians are anti-American is because of the unlimited backing we gave to another unpopular dictator, Hosni Mubarak. It did not matter in either case that at the last minute, when both men were in danger of toppling, the U.S. effectively withdrew its backing. All that the people of Egypt and Iran would remember was the decades of support for a dictator which preceded the regime’s demise.

Needless to say, I do not condone this anti-Americanism, but I can understand it–just as I can understand why so many American governments found it prudent to back the Shah and Mubarak. The regime which succeeded the Shah makes his rule seem paradisiacal by comparison; the same might yet be said of whatever regime emerges in Egypt, which will be dominated by Islamists. Perhaps there was no “third way” possible (to evoke that Cold War phrase), but we should have at least tried harder to find it by pushing our dictatorial allies to reform and providing support to moderate opposition elements.

We didn’t do that in the case of Egypt and Iran and are now paying the price. It is not too late in the case of other regional allies such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. We need to push them to liberalize, or else we can expect more hostage crises and show trials in our future.

 

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