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.