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When National Interests Clash With National Values: United States in Moral Quandary Over Stalemated Egyptian Protests

--Cutting-Edge Analytics--


By: Franklin Otorofani
 Published February 4th, 2011

The volcanic eruption of popular anger into sustained massive street protests against the 30-year old brutal and dictatorial regime of the Egyptian leader, President Hosni Mubarak, has once again brought into stark relief the difficulties involved in balancing, as former US Secretary of States under HW Bush, James Baker, puts it, “national values and national interests.” In drawing this distinction Baker lays bare the basic principles undergirding United States’ foreign policy objectives which have been passed down from one administration to another regardless of the party in power.

Baker has by this arbitrary categorization, however, drawn a stark distinction between national values and national interests, which are not necessarily co-terminus. Where they are co-terminus the United States speaks loud and clear but where they are not she tends to speak from both sides of the mouth in doublespeak or muffled voice that tends to question her professed commitment to democracy globally. However, when she speaks in such muffled voice as she has indeed been forced to do quite often she is actually trying to balance both interests without appearing to abandon either at any time. This is an extremely difficult if not impossible task particularly in a situation that calls for a clear and straightforward position from the acclaimed leader of the free world. And that’s why the Egyptian protesters have by and large discounted US support for their single most important demand for the ouster of their ageing and brutal dictator. Even Muhammed El Baradei, the former UN Chief Weapons Inspector in Iraq, criticized the US for speaking from both sides of her mouth; talking about how important Mubarak has been as an ally and her support for the right of Egyptians to peaceful protests and demands for democracy. That is a delicate balancing act because the United States is trying to hold on to both. The problem though is that the US cannot protect Mubarak and at the same time help the protesters meet their demands for his immediate ouster. Put another way, she cannot hold on to both national values and national interests at the same time insofar as she sees a distinction between both that need not be made.

But what precisely are these national values and national interests that Baker talked about? US national values as reeled out by the respected Baker consist of democracy, freedom and human rights. And while not explicitly defining US national interests, he was quick to mention Mubarak’s role in securing peace with the state of Israel and stability in the region as being in US national interest. And so also is the fact that although Egypt is not a major oil supplier to the US like Saudi Arabia, for example, it has 8% of world trade passing through the Suez Canal according to Bloomberg Businessweek. And according to the New York Times about 4.5 barrels of world crude supplies in addition to 12% of global liquefied natural gas trade pass through both the Suez Canal and the Sumed Pipeline located in and controlled by Egypt. There is no question then that an uncontained crisis in Egypt would severely adversely affect world trade and stymie the tepid recovery of the global economy as oil prices have already risen even as it is for fear of possible disruption of oil supplies to world markets. That is part of the national interests that has the US stuttering. But Mubarak’s graceful exit is the quickest means of securing those critical supply lines by bringing the crisis to a quick end rather than the other way around that might prolong it. 

Mubarak has also cracked down on Islamic fundamentalists rooting for an Islamic state fashioned after Iranian model, particularly the Moslem Brotherhood, which has been at the receiving end of the Mubarak regime to the obvious pleasure of the United States. In the light of these glaring national interests, therefore, he cautioned against abandoning a strategic ally such as Mubarak and allowing Egypt to potentially fall into the waiting hands of radical Islam. He was full of praise for President Barak Obama’s handling of the situation so far, as indeed other leading figures, such as Senator Charles Schumer, from the State of New York. That is in line with precedents, as for instance, when late Saddam Hussein brutally cracked down on popular uprising against his rule at a time he was contending with Iran in the battlefield and supported by the United States. That crackdown was later to provide the Iranian authorities with the required evidence of genocide to hang him.

Ever the since the Egyptian crisis erupted and caught Washington flat footed, she has been scrambling to craft a carefully calibrated response to the crisis; one that would balance both competing interests of national values and national interests. In series of frantic consultations with her European allies the Obama administration had been signaling that it wanted nothing but orderly transition in Egypt not a revolution in order not to rock the boat in the Middle East. And that’s why every public statement issuing forth from the government, whether coming from White House Chief Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, or from the President Obama himself, had been carefully prefaced with how great an ally Mubarak had been to the United States and his role in the Middle East peace process, while at the same time expressing United States’ commitment to freedom of expression and peaceful protests.  But that is not what the protesters are demanding. They are not demanding freedom of expression or right to peaceful protests. They already have those and are in fact expressing them by engaging in the protests without molestation by the authorities. What they want is for Mubarak to resign immediately. They are fed up with him after 30 years in power. One female protester put it best: “It’s a shame that I’m 33 and I have not enjoyed the right to choose the leader of my country as in other countries” or something to that effect. She, like others want Mubarak out of the way permanently to enable them carry on with their lives not merely to grant Egyptians freedom of expression and the right to protest.  It looked like Washington didn’t get it or was acting in denial.

The entire Washington political establishment is acutely unwilling to have Mubarak disgraced out of office as was his Tunisian counterpart. In fact, US government officials have faithfully refrained from using the world “dictator” to describe Mubarak. The marked difference between United States and the west’s response to similar protests in Iran barely a year ago and the Egyptian protests is underlined and explicable by the Baker distinction between US national values and US national interests. In Iran both interests coalesced into one whole and that explained why the United States and other western powers were at the forefront in cheering and supporting the protesters and forcefully demanding that their needs should be met. Were such protests to erupt in countries like Syria, Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea the United States and the west would likewise move decisively in support and if need be provide both direct and indirect assistance to the organizers to help them succeed in overthrowing those regimes. But the story would be different when such protests are happening in countries like Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and many others that are friendly to the United States and the west. And you say different strokes for different folks, which translates to the application of double standards. Double standards are worse than no standards at all because they provoke adverse reactions and elicit charges of inconsistency at best and hypocrisy at worst in the minds of affected parties.

And that inevitably raises the question as to whether national interests should be allowed to trump national values? The answer has been answered in the affirmative by the US government in its reluctance to see Mubarak go as demanded by the protesters and thus willing to have him organize an orderly transition to democratic rule, citing, as Baker again puts it, the need for “stability”. Hear Baker again: “Stability should not be a dirty word…stability is good,” to rub it in, in the NBC Matt Lauer interview.

And it further raises the question as to whether national values are part of national interests and vice versa. If nations are going to draw a clear distinction between national values and national interests and the former is to be subordinated to the latter whenever there is a clash, then it is fair to conclude that national values are inferior to national interests and could therefore be sacrificed at a whim. The United States has been in bed with dictators throughout history in virtually all continents in countries like Cuba before Castro, Iran before the Ayatollah and the entire countries in the Middle East that know no democracy and human rights by willfully sacrificing her national values on the altar of her national interests that are at best temporary and shifting. And that has dealt huge blow to her credibility the world over when she begins to push for democracy in unfriendly nations. There is virtue in consistency no matter what. There is virtue in constancy of principles no matter what.

In the name of stability in the Middle East and peace with Israel, the United States is ready to have Mubarak remain in power till the end of his current term in September and he has promised not to go for re-election. But where is the guarantee that he will keep to that promise which, by the way, is not written in stone. How many dictators have been known to keep their words when the pressure is off their backs? I know of none in history. That is not to say that the 82 year old Mubarak will not honor his word made under extreme pressure in a special public television broadcast to his 85 million fellow countrymen and women in the thick of the protest, but to underline the fact that those words mean nothing in the end if he is let off the hook. And even if he leaves as age is not on his side, what is the guarantee that he will be able to preside over credible election later this year? How could a brutal dictator like Mubarak be allowed to preside over the conduct of a credible election?

Already the man has begun a crackdown on the protesters by organizing massive counter protests and thousands are reported to have fled the Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests, and the army has ordered the protesters to vacate the square telling them that they had delivered their message and are capable of bringing stability to Egypt, which is clear signal that it is feed up with the endless protests and ready to impose order by force if need be. Yes even as he promised reforms a brutal crackdown is already underway as I pen these lines and this bodes ill for the ultimate success of the already flowering people’s revolution.

In fact, Brian Williams of NBC’s Nightly News is reporting that there has been a dramatic power shift in favor of Mubarak literarily overnight. The narrative has changed and Mubarak seems to have turned the table on the protesters within 24 hours. And what is more, the little concessions extracted from the brutal hands of Mubarak are completely reversible since nothing concrete has been achieved with the so-called negotiations with the opposition elements. In fact, the whole protest locomotive seems to hurtling down the anti-climax lane with this new twist as the protesters, or those who refused to quit are now at the receiving end, treated to horsewhips and “Rock and Molotov cocktails” as reported including gunshots. Some deaths have even been reported. He reports that for now the pro-Mubarak forces have gained or at least appear to be gaining the upper hand.

This clearly indicates that Mubarak has successfully mobilized counter revolutionary forces to abort the revolution midstream. And that will be good news for dictators all around the world. The situation is still fluid on the ground and everything can change in a moment as we have seen as everyday bring new developments. But if indeed the Egyptian revolution winds up a failure the greatest beneficiaries will be Mubarak and his brother dictators in the Arab world, all the way from Libya to Syria, all of whom are US allies excepting Syria’s Assad. And it will a deal terrible blow to democratic forces throughout the Middle East who were looking to draw inspiration from Egypt, the largest and most influential Arab country in the world. There would have been a huge domino effect if the revolution had succeeded in Egypt but that prospect is fast receding as I write this with the latest developments. This is happening because the United States which has tremendous leverage with Mubarak has refused to play ball on the side of the protesters on the principle that the devil you know is better than the angel you don’t know.

However, such principle is not only self serving but ultimately defeats the cause of democracy in the part of the world that badly needs it. And the US will come out of it damaged in the eyes of democratic forces throughout the region due to her dubious, non-committal stance. It would go down in history that when the US was presented with two choices between a brutal dictator, Mubarak on the one hand, and the Egyptian people, on the other hand, she decided to side with the dictator in the name of national interests and stability in the Middle East. And that is in tune with Mubarak’s challenge to his people to choose between stability and chaos. The US is essentially singing the same tune with Mubarak about stability and orderly transition. And he has moved to enforce stability. No one would blame the US for that had she not represented and presented herself to the world as the global champion of democratic values and had sought to promote such values in a rather selective fashion.

And that is putting it mildly. If truth be told the United States is afraid of democracy coming to Egypt that could wind up installing unfriendly Islamic fundamentalists in power that would antagonize Israel. In fact, Baker voiced that fear in the interview in the NBC’s Today Show by Matt Lauer, cited earlier. The US is afraid of empowering them like it happened earlier in Lebanon with Hezbollah and in the Palestinian territory of Gaza with Hamas were Hamas was handed landslide victory in a democratic election. It is to be recalled that the Bush administration bluntly refused to recognize the Hamas victory. However, the idea that only friendly regimes are entitled to govern is utterly ridiculous and does extreme violence to the very notion of democracy. Whoever emerges as the clear choice of the people whether friendly or unfriendly to Washington and the west is entitled to govern in a democratic dispensation. Why is it impossible or too difficult to deal with democratically elected governments that, for the time being, happen to be unfriendly to the United States? It seems that the west believes in changing attitudes through adverse process of antagonism rather than through what Reagan called “constructive engagement” with difficult regimes. And Reagan was a Republican the last time I checked, the very party that is opposed to having any form of engagement with the so-called “Axis of Evil”. Obama himself had said he was willing to engage with Iran and even North Korea that clearly hostile regimes. And he has kept his words. That is the way it should be, not the other way around.

Why, one might ask, should a nation that preaches democracy prefer to deal with dictatorial regimes that deny their own people basic freedoms than with democratically elected governments that happen to be hostile or unfriendly? Hostility is a relative term and it could be turned around with certain mutual assurances. I find that totally hypocritical and absurd.  And the distinction between national interests and national values does not even begin to address it because there is no genuine reason for that distinction in the first place. It is wholly artificial. We cannot be preaching about democracy where the people are allowed to choose their leaders in a free and fair election and at the same time appearing to dictate who their choices should be and if their choices happen to be at variance with ours proceed to distance ourselves from their choices even to the extent of not recognizing the clear choices of the people in an otherwise free and fair election. We cannot eat our cake and have it back. It’s just not possible.

In conclusion it’s about time the United States embarked upon a comprehensive review of her foreign policy posture under the current president with a view to totally eliminating the artificial distinction between national values and national interests. Both should not be treated as separate categories with one cavalierly sacrificed for the other at the drop of a hat, but rather treated as one whole, holistically as one corpus of national interests. If they must remain separate, however, then on no account should national interests be allowed to trump national values, which are more permanent national treasures to be defended, protected, cherished and projected to the outside world than interests in oil and the Middle East peace process, which are neither here nor there. Global respect for the United States comes not from her interests in oil. Other nations too have interests in oil shipments and in the Middle East peace process. Why should those now more important than her cherished national values?   

The United States was not founded on national interests that were acquired along the way, but on national values of democracy, liberty, freedom and human rights as enunciated in the Bill of Rights enshrined in the US constitution and in the Declaration of Independence. And the US along with her values was there before the state of Israel came into being in 1948. She was there before the crisis in the Middle East came into being and before the Islamic fundamentalists and terrorism came into being. These values predated even the founding of the United States itself and ought to be held sacrosanct and inviolable. It is a shame that the United States is now in bed with dictators in the Middle East such as Mubarak to put out the light on freedom, democracy and human rights, their muffled defense in the case of Egypt and other friendly dictatorial states around the world, notwithstanding. It’s time to take a consistent stand, not straddling between the opposing and irreconcilable worlds of dictatorship and democracy. A nation that was forged by the fire of revolution should not be seen to tamp down the flame of a revolution.

Should that mean abandoning an old ally and side with those who want him out immediately rather than later? Well, if that is the price to pay for democracy, so be it. He should not have been an ally in the first place. The moral dilemma involved in abandoning an ally is self inflicted and need not have arisen in the first place if the United States had been true to her founding ideals and her constitution. The very notion of the United States being in bed with brutal dictators is indeed repugnant to many of her citizens and admirers and a bitter pill to swallow. Therefore, this crisis should be a turning point in US relations with the world. The US has no business being in bed with petty dictators. Cuddling dictators might be an American tradition not started by Obama, but it should be up to him, the candidate and president of change to change that unenviable tradition. The cold war is over and there is absolutely no reason to be in bed with dictators as a counterpoise against the Soviets. Over to you, President Barack Obama! This is your call. Start the process of the policy review now before another crisis hits in another part of the world because, sure enough, another will hit in due course.

From the stable of –Cutting-Edge Analytics—Where News Meets the Intellect--

Franklin Otorofani is an Attorney and Public Affairs Analyst.

Contacts: mudiagaone@yahoo.com, http://franklinotorofani.wordpress.com/




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