By Nick Bernold
Throughout its short history, the United States has been distinguished from other nations by one characteristic more than any other: confidence.
It is common for countries or institutions of great power to feel as though they have a central place in the world, that their strength must be indicative of their fundamental importance in Mankind. Many powers have held this view of themselves throughout history, from the ancient Romans to the British Empire of the Victorian era. Yet in nearly every case, this national self-importance has been deflated, and the country has discovered that it is not so pivotal as it had thought, that its mandate is not so grand.
The one exception, of course, is us. Since the very founding of the country, many have been most certain that the United States of America plays a crucial and even holy role in the story of Man. This was the case even as the new republic struggled just to ratify a constitution and played no role on the international level. In the last century or so, as the US has gone from major player to superpower to the superpower, this sense of manifest destiny has not been dampened in the least. Our great gift to the world has been, of course, democracy, an idea that founded the country more than two hundred years ago and still rings true in our hearts today. It is a value so important to the American people that for its sake we have fought to the ends of the earth and gotten involved in situations we shouldn’t have.
Unfortunately, there is a difference between passion and reality, as our government quickly learned. Just as absolute freedom had to be tempered by the need for a functional government, so, too, did our professed desire for an Earth populated only by true democracies quickly run into impractical situations. To deal with only democratic governments, or even those of which we vaguely approved morally, would cripple the US diplomatically and would absolutely stunt any desire for international relevance. Therefore, concessions have been made and dealings and even friendships with particularly unsavory regimes have become the norm. Up to now, though, we have been able to remain at least somewhat convinced as a people that whatever the individual policies may be, in the end the United States is fervently working for an overall more fundamentally just and democratic world. These beliefs may be tested in the coming weeks.
We’ve all read about the revolutionary movement sweeping the Arab world. Last month, former Tunisian president Zine Ben Ali was ousted from his country by a popular uprising, and, as I type, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is facing increasingly violent pressure. It seems that Yemen might be next.
As this rebellious spirit spreads, it will become increasingly inconvenient for the US. Tunisia, though a strong economic partner of some European countries, is not too heavily involved with the United States. Consequently, the official American response was quick to praise the protesters, affirming their right to free elections and a democratic government and recognizing the rejection of Bel Ali’s power as legitimate.
Egypt, on the other hand, is a critical ally of the US, both because of its location in a generally hostile region, and, more specifically, because of its role in trying to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It follows that the White House’s response to the protests in Egypt has been much more reserved than its reaction to those in Tunisia. President Obama has objected to Egypt’s shutting down of the country’s Internet and cell service and has come out against “violence on both sides.” It seems that the US, this “land of liberty,” has cast its lot with the preposterously titled President Mubarak, or, if not with him, it has certainly not thrown its lot with the pro-democratic protesters. If Yemen were to fall ill with this revolutionary malady, the response would be even more clear-cut. Even as the current regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh flounders and fails the Yemeni people miserably, the United States remains a committed ally and main sponsor, with aid to the country currently at $63 million and expected to rise. Yemen has been considered a crucial ally in the War on Terror, and a governmental collapse would very likely exacerbate problems for a country already considered a hotbed for extremism.
“What happens when our moral interests and our political interests conflict?” is a question that we will be asking ourselves in the next stages of this developing story. On one hand, objectively, it would be better for the United States if President Mubarak were to stay in office. He has been an ally of the West, both economically and militarily. He has respected a pact with Israel and has been a reliably secular head of state in a region where Islam is the norm; his banning of the Islamic Muslim Brotherhood party has ensured that. In a part of the world where friends are very hard to come by, and even hard to buy, Mubarak has been reliably unproblematic for the West.
This may not be the case for much longer. As the protests swell, the United States and its allies are going to continually reassess the balance between pragmatism and reality. In reality, many of our foreign friends are bullies and thugs who are just as bad as the dictators we rail against when their agenda is not compatible with ours. Regarding the current Egyptian crisis, it is clear that the moral right is on the side of the protesters. Americans firmly believe that it is the people’s right to choose and be involved in their government. Even if the protesters, trying to find their voices after thirty years of a one-party system, had acted out violently, we could not blame them. However, they have been commendable even in that respect, staying largely peaceful and fighting only to defend themselves against coordinated pro-Mubarak attacks (almost certainly perpetrated by plainclothes policemen).
On the other hand, if the Mubarak regime were to fall, political uncertainty would ensue. The protests have already cost Egypt a fortune in lost revenue (especially from tourism), and the economic fallout will continue after the protests have ceased. Knowing that financial hardship is often the precursor of chaos, it is not difficult to imagine an imminent period of anarchy. Indeed, some have even speculated about a counterrevolution coming from the countryside, where most people seem to remain in favor of the Mubarak regime (in many ways, Egypt’s uprisings mirror the beginnings of the French Revolution). The most likely outcome, other than prolonged unrest, is the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood. This would be very unfortunate for United States’ interests in the region, as the Brotherhood has an avowed a strong anti-USA/Israel position. Even thinking positively, the best outcome imaginable is a smooth transition to a moderate president, such as Mohamed ElBaradei or Omar Suleiman. Both have had good relations with the the West in their respective functions of Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency and chief negotiator in the Israel-Egypt talks. However, they would both most likely be less favorable to American interests than their predecessor: as elected officials, they would be representing the will of a people generally skeptical of the United States.
It is clear to me that our country is in control of the situation. The Egyptian army is bankrolled almost exclusively by American money, sent to ensure a continuing peace between Egypt and Israel. This same army has emerged as the decisive factor in the revolution. It has the confidence of the people, and yet it is a branch of the government. It has not taken sides yet, but has mostly stood by and stepped in to contain protesters when the clashes became too violent. If the United States were to put some pressure on the army to swing one way or the other, it would comply immediately for fear of losing benefits and a status which by all accounts have been very generous. I take the soldiers’ inaction and desire to stay out of the conflict to be linked to our government’s own indecisiveness. Who do we really want in power?
In the end, the issue boils down to the one persistent question of foreign policy. Who is more important: the people of our country, or the people of the world? We struggle with this issue, just as we struggle to decide whether it is right to torture enemies to protect our country. If we torture, we are declaring our citizens’ lives and security more important than those of others. Is this wrong? If we support the departure of Mubarak, we might be opening the door for harm to come to our country in the future. Is this wrong? Neither choice is good, but which is better? The battle between idealism and pragmatism is as strong as ever. It will be interesting to see which way we lean in the coming days.