The pace of events in Egypt continues to accelerate, and the White House keeps scrambling to stay apace. A mere eight days ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “The Egyptian government is stable.” But in a televised statement last night, President Obama said that the Egyptian government is toast. In the name of democracy, he suggested that dictator Hosni Mubarak should quit with all deliberate speed, via an “orderly transition” that “must begin now.”
In the key passage, Obama explained his reasoning: “We stand for universal values, including the rights of the Egyptian people to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and the freedom to access information….And going forward, the United States will continue to stand up for democracy and the universal rights that all human beings deserve, in Egypt and around the world.”The United States will “continue to stand up” for the “universal values” of democracy? Since when have we been doing that? How often have we ever put that rhetoric into practice?Presidents of all political persuasions have long supported autocratic regimes worldwide. It has been standard bipartisan practice to break bread with the bad guys who have proven useful in protecting America’s economic and security interests. Over many decades, we have cozied up to dictators like Batista, Somoza, Noriega, and (yes, during the Reagan era) Saddam Hussein. We supported military coups in Chile and Iran. Apart from our occasional spasms of human-rights idealism, we have been downright Machiavellian.Obama, seeking to stay in step with the grassroots Egyptians, seems to be signaling a sea change in America’s global priorities. It would certainly be a sea change for Obama, because he too has slighted those aforementioned universal values. Just 10 months ago, the Washington press corps was writing about Obama’s adherence to “realpolitik,” the credo (most famously practiced by Henry Kissinger) that stresses pragmatism in foreign relations, at the expense of democratic idealism. As one New York Times story concluded: “if there is an Obama doctrine emerging, it is one much more realpolitik than his predecessors, focused on relations with traditional great powers, and relegating issues like human rights and democracy to second-tier concerns.” Case in point: Last spring, Obama reportedly cut a deal with the president of Kazakstan, an ex-communist who has compiled a notoriously poor human-rights record during his two-decade reign. Obama agreed not to publicly assail the Kazakh president’s repressive policies; in exchange, the Kazakh president (who also controls considerable oil and uranium) agreed to let U.S. military planes penetrate Kazakh air space while flying supplies into Afghanistan.Back then, human-rights groups were complaining that Obama’s occasional human-rights talk was empty (“The rhetoric is going the right way, but it’s not really translated into coherent policy”). Back then, Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told the press that Obama was indeed a pragmatic realpolitiker (“You’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation”). Back then, a former Geoge W. Bush official named Stephen Rademaker was quoted as saying that Obama’s foreign policy was “almost Kissingerian. It’s not very sentimenal. Issues of human rights do not loom large…and issues of democracy promotion, he’s been almost dismissive of.”Some observers have sympathized with Obama’s predicament. Back in October ’09, former Republican congressman (and current scholar) Mickey Edwards wrote of Obama’s realpolitik, “The world is never easy. One wishes for more democracy, more freedom, more protection from abuse in all places where these rights are in short supply. But there are other considerations, and they necessarily impinge on the decisionmaking process.” (Edwards is right about that.) Therefore, Edwards concluded, “it now appears that it is the ‘hard’ side, the perceived necessity of setting aside one’s empathies, that has captured Barack Obama’s thinking.”Well, that was then. This is now: In his televised statement last night, Obama embraced empathy (the Egyptian people have been “an inspiration to people around the world, including here in the United States, and to all those who believe in the inevitability of human freedom”). Given the world’s complexities, it’s doubtful that Obama will fulfill his broad promise to stand up for democracy “going forward,” but at minimum he clearly has concluded that it is pragmatic for America to get in sync with Egyptians’ aspirational idealism.
Either he does that, or America risks getting left behind. The velocity of events has forced his hand. As American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson famously penned nearly two centuries ago,”Things are in the saddle / And ride mankind.”