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Published on: February 2, 2011
The Plagues of Egypt

The Obama administration is now living through one of the oldest and most difficult recurring problems in American foreign policy: what do you do when revolution breaks out in an allied country? The only clue history offers is not an encouraging one: there is often no satisfactory resolution of the dilemmas revolutions present. In 1789 […]

The Obama administration is now living through one of the oldest and most difficult recurring problems in American foreign policy: what do you do when revolution breaks out in an allied country?

The only clue history offers is not an encouraging one: there is often no satisfactory resolution of the dilemmas revolutions present.

In 1789 Americans watched the progress of revolution in their closest ally.  King Louis XVI, whose decision to back the colonists with money, ships and troops forced Britain to recognize American independence, was tottering on his throne.

The French Revolution (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1917, as the United States moved toward entry into World War One, Americans watched the February Revolution drive Tsar Nicholas II from his absolute rule in one of our key allies in the conflict we were about to begin.

In 1948-49 the Truman administration watched as communist forces systematically defeated the nationalists in the Chinese Revolution.  At the dawn of the Cold War, the most populous country in the world fell under communist rule.

Ten years later the Eisenhower administration watched Fidel Castro seize power in Cuba and begin the process that would betray the hopes of Cubans and turn this neighboring state into a firm ally of the Soviet Union.

And in 1978 the Carter administration watched helplessly as mounting public anger in Iran drove one of our important Cold War allies from the throne.

None of these precedents will cheer up the White House.  In all these cases, the United States failed to find an effective policy response to the revolution, and each time the foreign revolution created thorny political problems for the sitting president.  George Washington’s administration was poisoned by infighting between supporters and opponents of revolutionary France.  Woodrow Wilson sent troops to try to suppress the October Revolution in Russia — a measure that did nothing to help him as opposition to his post war plans grew and his personal popularity declined.  The Truman administration was politically sapped by the deepening backlash over its alleged indifference to the communist triumph in China — and the victorious Chinese communists supported North Korea’s invasion of the South, forcing Washington into the devastating and politically ruinous Korean War.  The fear of looking weak after the Bay of Pigs and the establishment of a Soviet beachhead in the western hemisphere contributed to the decisions by JFK and LBJ to commit themselves more heavily to South Vietnam.  The Iranian hostage crisis sapped Jimmy Carter’s political strength and his failure either to liberate the hostages or to negotiate successfully for their release helped Ronald Reagan defeat him in his 1980 quest for re-election.

So one lesson of history seems clear: President Obama should brace himself.  When revolutions in friendly foreign countries break out, American presidents frequently face unresolvable dilemmas.  Sometimes there aren’t any good answers and no matter what you do, you will suffer.

Not that snarky pundits will cut you any breaks.  Journalists and professors are almost always sure that there is an easy answer to various tough policy problems and that any failures by our political leaders reflect incompetence or malevolence.  The Obama administration may well fail (indeed it probably will fail) to find an elegant method of handling the crisis in Egypt — but the world is a complicated place and all of our options in Egypt have serious drawbacks.

Revolution is a constant in modern life, and especially in the many societies around the world where rigid political systems and authoritarian governments make peaceful and gradual change impossible.  Today we are watching the progress of what increasingly looks like a revolution in Egypt, and once again an important ally of the United States is falling from power in the face of widespread dissatisfaction with his rule.

In most cases, revolutions happen to those who deserve them.  Louis XVI had many good human qualities, but the system he ruled was too corrupt, too dysfunctional and too out of touch to endure.  The tsarist autocracy in Russia was both incompetent and vile.  The Shah’s vicious security apparatus and his wanton disregard for the traditional values of the peoples of Iran united the whole country against him.

President Mubarak is of this ilk and from a human rights perspective any comeuppance he gets will be richly deserved.  Although the Mubarak era has significant accomplishments to its credit, the Egyptian system is dismally corrupt, incompetently managed, and rests on unspeakable brutality.  It is past time for this system to go, and when the Egyptians saw the cynical preparations underway to install President Mubarak’s son as their next leader, they exercised what our founding fathers would surely consider their natural and inalienable right of revolution in trying to send him away.

Americans should never forget that our own system rests on two acts of revolution.  The first was the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in which the British (with enthusiastic support from most colonists) kicked out an abusive monarch and transferred the throne to rulers who promised to respect the rights of Parliament and people.  The second of course was the American Revolution when we rejected Parliament’s attempt to rule us without our consent.  The United States has revolution in its DNA and America’s deepest values tell us that revolutions like those in France, Russia, Iran and Egypt are the last defense of humanity against the establishment or the perpetuation of tyranny.

All of this is true; none of this helps American governments figure out what to do when revolutionary upheaval breaks out in a key foreign ally.  It is almost never the right choice to help the challenged government cling to power by using American forces and resources to crush the uprising.

Yet distancing ourselves from a weakening ally is not always cost free.  President Mubarak is not the only ruler with a questionable human rights record that the United States works with in this messy world.  If the US simply abandons him at the first sign of trouble, what kind of ally do we look like to our other smelly friends?  Do they start looking toward countries like China or Iran whose backing might be more reliable?  Will that make us happy?  Will it advance human rights?

George W. Bush and Hosni Mubarak (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

There are other consequences, too.  Israel has counted on the Mubarak government to support the peace treaty between the two states.  As they watch the Obama administration walk away from Mubarak, many Israelis wonder whether the US can be trusted to guarantee their security after a peace treaty with the Palestinians.  Suppose Israel signs a treaty with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and withdraws from the West Bank — only to have America sit on its hands as a revolution on the Palestinian street overthrows the moderates to install a Hamas government or something worse?  The price of letting Mubarak fall may include a significant decline in America’s ability to get a Middle East peace deal.

Bad regimes in important places present the United States with bad choices.  There are times when we need to work with a country whose government we don’t really like.  Iran was in an important strategic place during the Cold War; we needed to work with its government, like it or not.  With the Soviet Union bordering on the Middle East on both shores of the Caspian Sea, the United States needed to have a reliable friend in place.  The ultimate case of this kind of foreign policy realism was in World War Two when we allied ourselves with Stalin and helped him to preserve his evil system at home and subject tens of millions more victims in Eastern and Central Europe to his iron rule.  We had to do it, but there is no way to call this a good choice.

If protests in Egypt go on as they now look set to do, our problems don’t involve supporting a questionable regime in the interests of wider foreign policy objectives.  They involve dealing with a period of uncertainty and instability in a key part of the world and doing what we can (which is usually very little) to help this latest Egyptian revolution achieve a stable and more democratic new order.

The biggest problem facing both American policymakers and the Egyptian people was summed up very elegantly by former US ambassador Edward Walker in an interview with Bloomberg:

The immediate problem in Egypt is that protesters have no one who can deliver what they want — jobs, lower prices and a better life.

“It’s very difficult to see how democracy will work to answer the questions the demonstrators have,” Walker said. “It doesn’t create jobs, it doesn’t lower the price of food” or eliminate the gap between rich and poor.

Egypt has serious problems that have no obvious or simple solutions.  That is the fundamental issue that confronts Egyptian authorities and protesters alike.   President Obama will struggle to find an appropriate response to the crisis that balances America’s strategic priorities with the new realities in Egyptian politics. It is clear that the reform movement will not go away anytime soon, but can reformists solve the problems of unemployment, class divisions, or economic disparity?  We must all remember that public anger does not automatically create solutions to serious cultural and economic problems and the chaos and upheaval that inevitably attend even benign and popular revolutions may have severe economic repercussions.

Nobody connected with Egypt — its own policy-makers (whoever those turn out to be), foreign diplomats trying to adjust to new realities, and above all the Egyptian people themselves — is going to have an easy life in the months ahead.  President Obama will do well if he can avoid being blamed by everyone involved for all the ways in which the new situation in Egypt falls inevitably short of their hopes.  Most of his predecessors have not escaped the fallout from foreign revolutions; President Obama must hope that this time is different.

show comments
  • Mal
  • HappyAcres

    There is a solution: “No entangling alliances.”
    The Leviathan is not content to rule its own citizens; it’s compelled to meddle worldwide.

  • HappyAcres

    “No entangling alliances.” See, that was simple.

  • http://www.martinbermangorvine.com Martin Berman-Gorvine

    It’s true the Obama administration has no good choices here, but by announcing publicly that it will be happy to welcome the anti-American, anti-Israel, jihad-spawning Muslimn Brotherhood into the next Egyptian government as long as this movement pays lip service to democracy and nonviolence, the administration has needlessly given aid and comfort to our enemies.

  • Patton

    Much can be learned by studying the Suez canal crisis. In those days the british were ready to ally with France and Israel to take over this neuralgic axis. That would be totally unthinkable today. The situation is too unclear to dare such thing. But on the other hand Egypt is too important a country to let it shift away from our interest. As Mead says, no good answer to this problem exists. Obama is once again going to have some troubles on his hands. Poor fellow…

  • Luke Lea

    It’s nice to get some historical perspective.

    One quibble though: You write,”Americans should never forget that our own system rests on two acts of revolution. The first was the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in which the British (with enthusiastic support from most colonists) kicked out an abusive monarch and transferred the throne to rulers who promised to respect the rights of Parliament and people.”

    Having just read Trevelyan’s history of the Stuarts, it seems pretty clear that the revolution in England began with the Civil War and only culminated with the Glorious Revolution some 40-odd years later. It was a protracted process.

  • Luke Lea

    I’d like to hear your thoughts on the situation in Jordan. What are the chances for a shift towards constitutional monarchy governed by a parliamentary majority? How might that the effect the chances for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement?

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    The fluidity of the moment reminds me of an old Maria Muldaur gospel tune, the latter verses especially.

    http://www.myspace.com/mariamuldaurtoday/music/songs/as-an-eagle-stirrith-in-her-nest-27928004

  • Anthony

    Egypt, North Africa…how the leadership public profile has changed since Nasser/Sadat. Is Mubarak really representative of Egypt (a country thousands of years old) in these turbulent times?

  • Dave Thomas

    I believe Mr. Mead’s statement that “…Americans watched the February Revolution drive Tsar Nicholas II from his absolute rule in one of our key allies in the conflict we were about to begin” is inaccurate.

    In fact it was the February overthrow of Nicholas II that removed a roadblock to United States intervention in WWI. We did not want to be allied with the most autocratic ruler in Europe, Nicholas II. The administration of Woodrow Wilson was never a closer ally of the Czar.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @ Dave Thomas: by February 1917 the US was clearly headed toward entry into the war and Germany not the US was in control of that process. It was very convenient that the Tsar fell when he did, but if Germany had continued with unrestricted submarine warfare, Wilson would have gone to war Tsar or no.

  • http://www.dougsanto.com Doug Santo

    Another thoughtful piece. I find I agree with all of it. This statement sums up the current situation:

    “… American presidents frequently face unresolvable dilemmas. Sometimes there aren’t any good answers and no matter what you do, you will suffer.”

    I am a critic of the current administration, but I don’t see that they have good options in this case. Criticism of their handling of the situation has been over the top in some circles.

    Doug Santo
    Pasadena, CA

  • Longview

    I am not sure we have revolution in our DNA. We have the love of liberty in our DNA, but we did not face quite the same issue as those who overthrow dictators in own land. We were a colony that declared independence. The initiation of violence came from Britain who would not recognize our independence. Mr. Mead well describes the clash of our own values between reliably supporting an ally and promoting the love of liberty. We would do well to project as foreign policy that we can be counted on as an ally up to the point that you lose the support of your own people because of your own brutality. We will defend against foreign aggression, but our love of liberty will prevail if you lose the support of your own people. Mr. Mead’s dilemma remains: That policy would drive the brutal to rely on the brutal powers of the world instead of us. And how would we respond when the next power promises to be as or more dictatorial than the previous (note Iran)? But the people of the world would get the message that we won’t prop up their dicators against their own people.

  • EJM

    The events in Eqypt would present difficult choices for any Administration, but this one looks particularly blindsided, confused, and out of its depth.

    It’s first responses were late and incoherent. Any American President should be able to articulate American principles of human rights and self-determination. While picking Egypt’s leaders is not our business we could have said early on that we are supportive of peaceful change and a transition to a popularly elected government. Of course, we could have and should have done the same when Tehran was bursting with protestors in 2009 as well.

    Second, we should have welcomed Mubarak’s statement that he will step down at the end of his term. Although this does not satisfy the immediate demands of the protestors, cooler heads understand that Egypt needs many months at least for opposition parties to form and popular leaders to emerge. Mubarak has been our ally for 30 years. The least we owe him is a dignified and graceful exit.

    Finally, we do have influence with the leadership of the Egyptian Army which is the most powerful force inside the country. Their generals were at the Pentagon when the demonstrations started. We should enlist their help in maintaining order and guiding the country over the transition period. If they assure Mubarak’s departure in September and allow opposition parties to form, and free and fair elections to proceed under international monitors, while avoiding bloodshed, we will continue and even increase aid to a new moderate government.

    Insisting that Mubarak leave immediately to try to curry favor with the crowd in the streets of Cairo is both foolish and dangerous. Likely he will not succumb to this pressure, but if he did now, there would be a power vacuum, chaos and possibly civil war in Egypt which serves no one’s purpose except the radical Islamists.

  • Denny

    Dr. Mead, a very well informed article, as usual. However, regarding the Iranian revolution, many have accused the CIA for creating the Shah in the first place and thus the US for being actually responsible for planting the seeds for that revolution. Do you agree? Is there a degree of responsibility for being at least complacent in Egypt for the last several years? Or do you think that nothing could have been done?

  • Dave Thomas

    I agree completely Mr. Mead that the US would have entered the war eventually because of unrestricted submarine warfare.

    I simply feel it was inaccurate to portray the Czar as a key ally of the United States.
    An examination of editorials during the period shows vociferous criticism of the Czar used by isolationists to keep us out of the war before 1917, and that the Wilson state department was never in close alliance with the Czar’s government. Wilson certainly wasn’t happen with the alternatives that emerged either. When was the last time the United States approved of a government in Russia, Yeltsin?

    It bothered me to see that statement enough to offer the criticism. I enjoy your analysis immensely.

  • G. Rick Marshall

    Interesting history; I always learn from reading Professor Mead’s work but why in this 100th Anniversary month of President Ronald Reagan’s birth is the revolution that happened in Eastern Europe on his watch left out? Could it be that it doesn’t fit the theme?

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Support-Egyptian-democracy/ Jesse

    This is an amazingly well-written historic overview of America’s options in foreign policy situations such as this. I’m not saying our choice is clear, or easy, but I stand behind what I feel we need to do.

    We must support an immediate removal of Mubarak, and create a coalition to help guide the construction/amendment of a new constitution.

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Support-Egyptian-democracy/

  • Andrew

    Longview has it right: “We would do well to project as foreign policy that we can be counted on as an ally up to the point that you lose the support of your own people”

    The founding principles of this country make the price of any other foreign policy too high.

  • jack carlson

    The only way that “public anger” DOES create solutions, is when it removes corrupt and incompetent leaders and replaces them with people of integrity.

    This is what we are doing today in the USA with the Tea Party. We have the luxury of time, scheduled honest elections, and freedom of communication. Egypt has none of these.

    The author failed to mention that most of the revolutions he listed, that occurred outside the Anglosphere, resulted in the rise to power of despots. No, things do not look good.

  • Peter

    I agree with EJM. While the administration hasn’t bungled things entirely and has no perfect choices it has done what it has always done, interjecting itself at the wrong time, making seemingly snap decisions and issuing statements before thoroughly thinking through all the consequences.

    The contrast with what was (not) said when Iranians were protesting in large numbers on the street is particularly glaring. When marchers were chanting “Obama, Obama you’re either with them (the mullahs) or with us” the silence from the WH was deafening. Now, when a staunch ally is (justifiably) the target of similar protests we immediately call for his quick departure.

    Certainly we can no longer support Mubarak but the clear danger of Muslim fanatics taking control of Egypt is widely known by everyone. For that reason alone it behooves U.S. leaders (including many on the right who should know better) to say as little as possible in public and to do everything behind the scenes to ensure a peaceful transition that has the best chance of keeping the Islamic nut cases from power.

  • thibaud

    An incremental transition presided over by a gradually, steadily withdrawing Egyptian Army is the best path here. There is a precedent, as outlined by an expert on democratic transitions, Thomas Carothers, writing in The New Republic (which btw has probably the best, widest-ranging, most intelligent commentary to be found on the web re. this crisis and its implications).

    http://tinyurl.com/4s38v9l

    Excerpts:

    “Egypt’s historical path, societal makeup, economic conditions, and national character differ in many ways from Indonesia’s. Nevertheless, enough of its socio-political experiences and structures bear resemblance to Indonesia’s ten years ago—- from its newly assertive mix of idealistic young protestors, civic groups, and political opposition parties to its longstanding effort to balance secular and Islamist values—that Indonesia’s democratization offers some hope for Egypt. Accordingly, it is worth noting some of the keys to Indonesia’s successful transition.

    “First, the post-Suharto political renovation was inclusive despite the powerful mass rejection of the prior dictatorial order. The interim president moved quickly to allow freedom of expression and open the political space. Apparatchiks around the dictator managed to find a new political role for themselves through a transformed former ruling party that emphasized its technocratic capabilities. The army, which had played a key role in facilitating Suharto’s stepping down by refusing to violently repress the protesters, saw its political role greatly reduced but only bit by bit, through constant negotiations and compromises. Political parties of all sorts were allowed to flourish, despite the messiness of the initial elections and governments.

    “Second, once Suharto’s abrupt ouster was achieved, the transition became intensely legalistic and iterative. Indonesia put itself through seemingly endless phases of constitutional, electoral, and other legal reforms, carried out in a spirit of compromise. The vague but emotive reformist ideal was gradually translated into concrete institutions, rules, and procedures.

    “The serious pursuit of this detailed reform agenda helped Indonesians tolerate a transition period marked early on by a dubious post-dictator leader, disturbing outbursts of violence, economic woes, and the breaking off of East Timor.

    “Third, the United States and Europe overcame their suspicions of a political transition they had long dreaded and offered valuable assistance in support of elections, political party development, civil society strengthening, and legal reform….”

  • Andrew Ian Murphy

    This is of course only the begining…

    When the people finally get their hands on that evil dictator and traitor, and when they drag him across the sqaure with his arms getting pulled off and while the world watches as he’s hung by his feet with no head even still attached…then we will see the leaders of Arabia abdicate their throwns and run off to their Jewish masters in Israel or AMerica…

  • newageblues

    Woodrow Wilson sent troops to Russia after the October Revolution to try to defeat it. But what did he do to support the faltering democratically oriented Provisional Government in the months before it was overthrown by the Communists? The Russian people were starving, a democratic Russia was clearly a long term hugely important American objective, aside from the immediate war effort and the humanitarian issue, so where were the food shipments that should have been streaming to Russia? What a ghastly mistake Wilson made, alongside the more well known ghastly mistake he made of allowing Britain France and others to dictate unsustainably punitive peace terms to Germany, after the U.S. had won the war for them.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I think Reagan shows the way to deal with the problem of foreign revolutions, Marcos and the Philippines, find a graceful exit for the dictator including his ill-gotten gains, including the shoes. And assist the revolution with a democratic transfer of power.

  • JLK

    At least,thanks to the “evul: Bush, they have a template now with Iraq.
    Before it was Turkey alone but Turkey is a different country with different culture and grography.
    JLK

  • Tom Kinney

    This article begins with a litany of previous revolutions in countries who’ve been our allies and the problems these scenarios have caused us. Let’s rework that construct into a simple question: Why, since we’ve experienced this so many times before, don’t we have a rough protocol for dealing with these situations? Sure these are trying events and certaintly there is no one-size-fits-all solution. On the other hand, the problem is always roughly the same; we back unsightly regimes for practical purposes but when they collapse we are revealed as the naked empire that’s just been caught backing retrograde rulers for its own gain. This is always followed by unanimous worldwide disapproval of our behaviors. Further, it makes us appear as hypocrites who covertly approve of anti-democratic activities at the same time as we proudly promote ourselves as avatars of democracy.

    Yet we are not wrong to do so. In an imperfect world, we do our best given our imperfections. No single past world power has been as benevolent as have we, despite our many faults and failures. So why after so many such setbacks do we continue to be surprised and unprepared for the inevitable fall of corrupt regimes that we’ve supported?

    While there’s no easy answer, policy wonks, of which we seem to have no shortage, should be commissioned en masse to provide one. Work those wonks until they come up with an workable answer, then shut them back up in their cells until they’re needed once again.

    The likely option to this approach is Pat Buchanan-like semi-isolationism. While this has long seemed a primitive solution, much like the fence between U.S. and Mexico he proposed 20 years ago, was laughed at heartily by all wise liberals and yet is now reality and prophecy, semi-isolationism has its appealling points and may yet be tried in exasperation in lieu of a feasible alternative. After all, these repeated revolutions in which we appear to have backed the wrong side–there generally being no right side to back–have weakened us internally through a loss of our collective self-confidence as we get caught again and again backing lesser monsters such as Mubarak. In the end, our prestige suffers while the world mocks us in that special glee reserved for the public humiliation of the all-powerful. And to what advantage to us?

    Why do we still need tens of thousands of troops in Germany 70 years after WWII and 20 plus years after the end of communism? For rapid deployment capability in the satellite/laser/stealth plane age? Isn’t the era of ground wars behind us? Do we even need ground troops?

    There’s no reason we can’t engage in earnest in the global economy while disengaging in global politics. Let the world see what they’re missing in our absence and let us see what consequences we face by not participating. At the very least, it would give us time to form a new perspective on all this before reengaging–were that to be our ultimate conclusion.

    If we can’t adapt to the constantly changing geopolitics of this increasingly dynamic and fluid world any better than this, we should consider retreating back to our one sure national responsibility; that of taking care of ourselves. If we continue to fail at that, not only do we grow weaker, the world weakens along with us and as we all know, or should know, there is no Plan B to the American prerogative.

  • Denis Fodor

    Granted that the administration’s problem in Egypt is perplexing. It might have proved less so. had it taken a position vis a vis the Egyptian revolutionaries similar to that adopted against the Green revolutionaries in Iran, namely an almost neutral one.
    Consistency makes people take one seriously. But now that we’ve damaged our alliance with the most populous nation in the Arab world, we really ought to undertake some serious damage control. I think we must retain
    a fulcrum on which to leverage our power
    in the Middle East. To provide this we now need to seriously court Turkey, the most populous nation there. Oh, and to make sure our remaining allies lend a hand in this endeavor.

  • Max Segal

    After the death of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, Kennedy said, “There are three possibilities in descending order of preference: a decent democratic regime, a continuation of the Trujillo regime, or a Castro regime. We ought to aim at the first, but we really can’t renounce the second until we are sure we can avoid the third.”

    We find ourselves today in a similar predicament with regard to Egypt, where Obama may be substituted in for Kennedy, Mubarak for Trujillo, and where an Islamist/anti-American regime is nearly the analogue of a Castro regime.

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