For 18 days, Egyptians sent a single, clear, powerful message from Tahrir Square to the world: that even the most brutal regimes ultimately derive their authority from the consent of the governed, and that when that consent is withdrawn, even the most entrenched dictator — no matter how strong his police force or his army or how sweeping his emergency decrees — cannot cling indefinitely to power.
And what was the message the Obama administration sent back? That depends on what day it was. On Day 2, it was that the Egyptian government was stable and that our longtime ally, President Hosni Mubarak, was not a dictator, and that everyone involved should exercise a little restraint. A week later, President Obama was boldly calling for a "transition," which spokesman Robert Gibbs said ought to begin "yesterday." A few days after that, however, the administration, chastened by nervous allies and Mubarak's reluctance to leave, was back to emphasizing the importance of moving slowly; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton even said that forcing out Mubarak too quickly could "complicate" Egypt's challenges.
It was a garbled, contradictory message. Was the United States backing democracy or expediency? Did it want the dictator to stay or to go? Could the frustrated activists in Tahrir Square count on U.S. support, or was their liberty to be sacrificed in return for the stability provided by Mubarak's iron fist? To some degree, we now know, the waffling reflected a split between those, such as National Security Council advisor Samantha Power, who argued that the U.S. should speak forcefully on behalf of the values it routinely proclaims as its own, and those, such as Clinton, who felt the U.S. should proceed cautiously to ensure stability and protect American interests.
That White House debate mirrored a broader one across the country about what the underlying objectives of U.S. foreign policy should be. On one side were those who argued that it should focus on the moral and humanitarian dimensions of the Egyptian situation, following the advice of President Kennedy, who memorably declared that the U.S. would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
On the other side were those in the "realist" school of international relations, who warned that foreign policy must be designed, above all, to protect national interests and security — not to right moral wrongs, promote a particular ideology or address the social needs of faraway countries. To realists, the aspirations of the Egyptians were distinctly secondary to the strategic concerns of the United States.
These debates raged for more than two weeks as the Egyptian regime teetered and finally toppled. Neoconservatives crossed swords with realists, the left with the right, idealists with pragmatists. None were entirely right, or entirely wrong. Certainly, the U.S. ought to defend freedom and liberty abroad and shouldn't stand idly by while fundamental rights are denied. But it is also true that this country has important strategic interests that at times come into head-on conflict with its values. When that happens, it's not always clear where to turn.
Consider American "interests" in Egypt. There's the Suez Canal, the crucial global maritime route; if safe passage were disrupted, the world economy could be badly harmed. There's the fact that Mubarak's Egypt has been at peace with Israel, which has meant an end to the wars that destabilized the region from 1948 to 1973. And a "friendly" government in Egypt also can help prevent the nuclearization of Iran, the arming of Hamas and Hezbollah, and the spread of Al Qaeda. Given all that, the realists asked, is it wise to turn against Mubarak too quickly?
And there are other arguments against making morality the central criterion in foreign policy decisions. For one thing, when nations go crusading through the world, things don't always work out the way they want. The George W. Bush administration, for instance, took the view that democracy could be imposed at the barrel of a gun. Yet the Iraq he left behind is increasingly anti-American, and Afghanistan is under the control of a corrupt and undemocratic regime run by President Hamid Karzai.
What's more, despite the United States' military strength and economic dominance, there are clear limits to its power. It's all very well to speak out in support of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but it's a tougher decision to fight forcefully for the Dalai Lama at the risk of alienating China, a rising economic power. Even with smaller countries, the U.S.'s influence is limited by the fact that it cannot go to war every time a country violates human rights or behaves undemocratically. The world wouldn't stand for it; nor would the American people.
So does that mean there is no place for morality in U.S. foreign policy? Of course not. It merely means that each case has to be considered individually, with an eye to national interests and the limits of American power as well as to what is right. The U.S. should and must, in conjunction with other countries and international institutions, put itself squarely on the side of democracy, human rights and a better standard of living for all. It has tools — including foreign aid, economic sanctions and, ultimately, the threat of force — that can help persuade rogue regimes to change their ways. But those tools must be used carefully and with a measure of humility. There is a limit to how much the U.S. can or should meddle in the affairs of other nations.
There was a time when the United States was linked to a host of unsavory authoritarian regimes. During the Cold War, the U.S. forged relationships with the shah of Iran, the Batista regime in Cuba, the Duvaliers in Haiti and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, to name just a few. Across Asia, Latin America and Africa, the U.S. did business with unelected governments that tortured or even killed their opponents. Since then, the U.S. has become more wary of such alliances. Not entirely — as in the Middle East, where we continue to work closely with the repressive Saudi monarchy and where Mubarak's government received about $1.5 billion each year in foreign aid. But a bit.
With regard to Egypt, the Obama administration rightly considered both its interests and its ideals. But it waffled too much and too publicly, unsure which way the situation would play out, and sent a mixed message to Mubarak. It should have been more insistent from the start that the United States was unequivocally on the side of the Egyptian people. An orderly transition was important, to be sure, but freedom was nonnegotiable. Any other position would have put the U.S. on the wrong side of history.