assaults on U.S. embassies abroad provoke political attacks rather than a unified front from all parties. The Romney campaign, never particularly interested in the truth, attacked the Obama administration for its “disgraceful” response to the attacks on embassies in Egypt and in Libya, where the U.S. ambassador and two others were killed. Turns out, the statement Romney criticized was put out by the U.S. embassy in Cairo BEFORE the attacks, and was what turned out to be a fruitless effort to soften any violent repercussions from controversy surrounding a film depicting the prophet Mohammed. The official responses from the Obama administration AFTER the attacks was precisely what you would expect, an immediate forceful condemnation. We’ll see if Romney walks back his comments, or sticks with them, knowing they’re a lie and hoping the voters won’t know or be interested in what really happened. Given his campaign so far, I expect the latter.
The Weiner affair got me thinking about how people use the modern communication tools at our disposal. For good or ill, we are connected in ways we never were before. Social networking sites like Twitter have been rightly praised for their impact on authoritarian societies, where dictators have been unable to stop the spread of information and the ability of citizens to organize large numbers of people. In a mature democracy like ours, the political uses seem to be somewhat less laudable.
The continued and spreading unrest in the Arab world presents enormous challenges to the United States and other Western countries which have supported and continue to support autocratic regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. We’ve given lip service over the years to backing democratic reform, but when it came to protecting our oil supply, democracy has taken a back seat to stability. We now find ourselves encouraging the protests against the very regimes we’ve underwritten with economic and military aid for decades. In Egypt we were caught by surprise, hoping for a slow and orderly change we could get behind while not abandoning our longtime ally in Mubarak. That didn’t work so well, although the Obama administration ultimately calibrated it reasonably well. It’s easy in Libya, where there’s been no love lost for Ghaddafi. What will we do when the revolt overtakes Saudi Arabia?
I couldn’t resist this one. In the Arab world and wherever else there’s a popular revolt against autocratic rule, it’s the dictator who ultimately flees. Not so in this country, evidently. In Wisconsin, where Republican Governor Scott Walker has proposed outrageously punitive restrictions of collective bargaining rights for select public unions, sparking massive demonstrations, it’s the Democratic supporters of the unions who have fled to avoid a vote on the measures.
What Walker has proposed will certainly pass the GOP-controlled legislature when the Dems return. It’s a union-busting package, pure and simple, having nothing whatever to do with balancing the budget. In fact, the unions have already agreed to the proposed salary and pension cuts, but this is driven not by budget necessity, but by the reflexive Republican hatred of unions. It would be a little easier to swallow if the pain were spread equally, but the bill unfairly selects only those public unions that have traditionally supported Democrats and spares those that have not. Teachers get the axe, but Republican-leaning police and fire unions are spared. So much for sharing the burden.
Worse, this is a trial run for Republican governors in other states who are salivating at the chance to decimate their own public unions. After a few more years of this kind of authoritarian rule, will Americans rise up and throw the bums out? One can only hope. In the meantime, the wrong people are being forced to flee.
The Obama administration is helping negotiate the terms of Egyptian President Mubarak’s resignation. While we in this country might see this as advancing democracy in the Arab world, Israel is evidently under no such illusions. The Jewish State has witnessed the catastrophic result of so-called democratic elections in the Mideast with something less than joy. Iran ended up with an autocratic Islamic regime. Gaza elected Hamas and tossed out the more moderate Palestinian Authority, and Lebanon recently installed Hezbollah. There is certainly no guarantee that elections in Egypt would not empower the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mubarak, for all his many faults, has maintained the peace with Israel, kept Hamas bottled up in Gaza, and made war against Israel by its neighbors a practical impossibility, to the great benefit of both countries. Israel sees moves by the United States to speed Mubarak’s departure as foolish in the extreme. The idea that caught my attention in a recent Huffington post article was that Israel believes that the United States has confused the “mechanics of democracy”–a popular election–with the real thing–an open and vibrant political conversation, all parties represented, minority concerns protected, an impartial judiciary, honest police, civilian control of the military, fair tax collection.
They have a point, one that has been confirmed again and again by the unfortunate outcomes of recent regime changes in the Muslim world. The United States failed for thirty years to demand that Mubarak moderate his authoritarian rule as a price of our support, instead buying into the notion that the only choice was Mubarak or the Islamists he repressed. With his fall now imminent, our unwavering economic and military aid to an increasingly unpopular regime may well have made that assessment a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Obama administration has been racing to catch up with events in Egypt for more that a week now. Cautiously non-commital at first, we then timidly asked Mubarak not to run again, and when that ploy didn’t work, we asking for a peaceful transition as soon as possible. That request was ignored today with the violent crackdown by Mubarak supporters.
In other words, we’ve done it to ourselves again, supporting an increasingly dictatorial autocrat for thirty years, preferring a predictable despot to the messiness of democratic reform. Mubarak kept the Islamists at bay and maintained the treaty with israel, and that was more than enough to garner our enduring friendship. Given the alternatives in the region, this seemed like a reasonable bargain. What we didn’t do was challenge Mubarak to support democratic values as he drifted toward more and more oppressive rule. If this sounds depressingly familiar, it’s the same pattern we followed in the Americas, when any two-bit dictator could gain our support and our dollars simply by opposing Communism.
It’s no wonder that the people on the street have no love for us despite the billions we’ve poured into Egypt over the decades, and that our influence and our options are now painfully limited.
It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how far the spontaneous popular revolution in Tunisia will spread through the Arab world. Will it stop in Egypt, or will the assorted monarchies and dictatorships that dominate the Arabian peninsula and other Muslim countries, fall like dominoes? Of equal interest is what will replace the current governments if they do fall. As we saw in Iran, there is no guarantee that a popular revolt against authoritarian regimes will result in democracies. The beards may not be in the streets, but the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood and their ilk are waiting in the wings.
Will whatever replaces Mubarak honor its treaty with Israel? Will the regimes we have allied ourselves with continue to help stabilize the region, or are we witnessing a regional breakdown of our influence, as well? Stay tuned. To Al Jazeera.