“He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt is said to have uttered those words about Nicaraguan strong man Antonio Somoza, but it reflects an ongoing and bipartisan problem in United States foreign policy. In the name of protecting what we define as our national interest, we stray from our greatest democratic ideals by lending our support and resources to dictators, autocrats and criminals. Whether we’ve set these men (I think they’re all men, but I could be wrong) up to stem the red tide of communism or as allies in the “War on Terror,” we trade the trust and goodwill of the people they oppress for a perceived strategic advantage in their neighborhood. This is called Realpolitik and it carries none of the democratic principles, the high-minded ideals, or the faith that people really can govern themselves peacefully. It’s the practical implementation of a world view that calls for the free exercise of pure self-interest.
Ultimately, these regimes tend to fall. When that happens, the fall is frequently accompanied by violence, civil war, and long-standing animosity toward the United States.
Well, it should be no surprise why I bring this up tonight. We’ve all been following the revolutions unfolding in the Middle East, most spectacularly in Egypt. Almost invariably, the governments that are threatened are lead by “our” SOB’s, the biggest one being Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak’s 30 year reign can be attributed to his status as an ally of Israel and a partner in the War on Terror. His presence has been a comfort to Israel and a bulwark of our Mid-East policy for decade. The other governments that are in trouble also tend to be friendly toward Western strategic and economic interests at the expense of the welfare of their people.
The amazing thing about the revolutions spreading from Tunisian to her neighbors is that in spite of American and Western mismanagement of the region, despite our complicity in the crimes of the dictators, despite Israel’s questionable (to put it mildly) security practices, the revolutions have been about corruption, poverty, education and economic issues. They’re not anti-American. They’re not anti-Israel, and they’re not Islamist. In short all these revolutions are about things that we want people to rise up over. Their non-violence and courage in the face of attacks by their own government wins our hearts and minds because they do in fact speak to our highest ideals as a democratic nation.
Well, at least when it comes to Egypt. We, our allies, and Israel need to face facts. It’s gut-check time. Do we back Mubarak because he serves our interests, or do we take a chance on democracy and back the protestors knowing full well that they could choose leaders who are not on our leash?
This is a key decision. If we do it right, we stand with the aspirations of the Arab street, and we gain their trust. We’d have partners in forging a future for the region. But, to do that, we have to take a risk. We have to risk Islamists coming to power and threatening our ally, Israel. We have to risk democracy, warts and all.
It’s gut-check time for democracies. Do we succumb to Realpolitik and back the dictators, or do we live out our highest ideals in the hope that democracy can bring us all a brighter future? I believe President Obama has cautiously chosen to walk the walk of democracy, and I believe he chose well