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Why so eager to topple Mubarak?

Why so eager to topple Mubarak?

Whose worse, Hosni or Mahmoud? Source:

True, the Mubarak regime was authoritarian and at times brutal with its domestic opponents; true, Mubarak squandered opportunities over three decades to gradually introduce pluralism and democracy.  But, compared to other such regimes, was it so bad, especially from the American perspective? Why were Western governments so eager to topple him, yet still tiptoe around the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or his patron Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran, Kim Jong-Il of North Korea, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, Bashar al-Asad of Syria, and Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s state within a state?  Why not exert on these fellows the combination of bully-pulpit heavy-handedness and behind-the-scenes carrot and stick that the Obama team wielded on Egypt?  

Clearly, the blame for the unrest in Egypt rests squarely on the shoulders of President Mubarak and his national security regime.  In spite of some good work they did regarding peaceful relations in the Middle East and economic development, they callously avoided expanding political participation and tolerated corruption.  With few formal avenues of political expression, pressure builds and outburts become likely. 

The US and the West are not to blame for this regime.  The long reign of Hosni Mubarak had more to do with Egyptian history and domestic politics and the regional context than it did with foreign support.  Sure, the billions in aid that Egypt received as part of the Camp David accords with Israel after 1979 helped the country develop and enabled Mubarak to spend on his national security state.  But, this wasn’t the critical factor.  Egypt’s history as a British client, a corrupt monarchy, then as a radical Arab nationalist movement (Nasser anyone?) with a powerful military bent on war with its neighbor culminated in Mubarak’s 30-year autocracy; it was not American policy, which if anything, moved Egypt towared more liberal policies, especially on foreign policy and the economy.

As I said in a previous post, it is somewhat odd (and ineffective) that Democrats are heavy-handed with autocratic allies and go easy on autocratic adversaries, whereas Republicans do the opposite.  Consistency in American foreign policy is not the envy of the world.  What is consistent in American foreign policy is Wilsonian idealism, for better or worse.  Wilsonianism was built on hypocrisy (i.e. Wilson’s segregationist policies at home and America’s imperialist/illiberal past), and has done at least as much harm in the world as good.  Yes,  American democracy remains a beacon to aspiring democrats all over the world and throughout history, but Wilson’s agenda after World War I can also be credited as a cause of the rise of Hitler and Germany’s ultimate overwhelming of the fledgling East European “democracies” wrought by Woody Woo. 

No one can seem to get it right.  Bush unseated authoritarian adversaries (Iraq and Afghanistan), while treating authoritarian allies (Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia) with kid gloves.  As a result, trillions have been squandered in land wars and billions misused by allies.  For his part, Obama sat by quietly while Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier bent on destabilizing the Middle East and the world with nuclear weapons, stole an election from a moderate candidate.  Then, the president did probably more than any foreign leader to undermine Mubarak during the recent crisis.  The spectacle of Robert Gibbs, the outgoing White House press chief, standing before the cameras in his blue suit, wielding a pen in his hands like a weapon, virtually dictating to the Egyptian authorities what they must do, not only violated the “prime directive” of Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets — which is, to in no case interfere in the internal developments of societies, but was also unseemly.  Let the president produce these requirements on TV himself.  Or better yet, let America be consistent and stay out of Iranian as well as Egyptian internal politics, while still offering support in general terms to the aspirations of all people for a voice in politics and opportunity in the world economy.

A recent NYTimes blog noted that Mubarak’s fall was not a victory for Obama, but a belated victory for the foreign policy of George W. Bush.  Bush had called for democracy in the heart of the Middle East, which he believed would catch on like wildfire.  He is the true Wilsonian.  Trouble is, only place it caught on before now was in Gaza, where Hamas (an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) won an election and then destroyed democracy (sound like anyone else you know in history?).  Bush’s foreign policy priority was to take on America’s autocratic adversaries.  Remember the Axis of Evil (Iran, Iraq and North Korea)?  Sure, this was unfortunate Us vs. Them language, much like Reagan’s Evil Empire, but he believed he knew who the enemy was. 

The US-led war in Iraq in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein was not managed well in the aftermath, and inter-ethnic conflict was allowed to mushroom, leading to much bloodshed.  Likewise, many believed that Saddam Hussein had hidden WMD, and the Bush administration was at best lackadaisical about examining the evidence.  Nevertheless, the crescendo of criticism against Bush’s ousting of this murderous, aggressive dictator, most notably by the current occupant of the White House, who launched his career professing better judgment in foreign policy, contradicts the enthusiasm with which these same people clamored for the ouster of Mubarak, an erstwhile ally of the West, whose repressive measures paled in comparison to Saddam’s.  Yes, in Mubarak’s case it was the Egyptian people who overthrew their dictator, and in the former it was the U.S. military.  But, in Saddam’s case, the police state was so thoroughgoing, that protests such as we just saw in Egypt were next to impossible.  Still, America’s quiet during the Iranian unrest in June 2009 needs some explaining.  It is fair to ask American and Western leaders, Why so eager to topple Hosni and not Saddam, and above all, not Ahmadinejad and the power lurking in the shadows, Ayatollah Khamenei, not to mention Mr. Kim and his portly son?



Roger Scher

Roger Scher is a political analyst and economist with eighteen years of experience as a country risk specialist. He headed Latin American and Asian Sovereign Ratings at Fitch Ratings and Duff & Phelps, leading rating missions to Brazil, Russia, India, China, Mexico, Korea, Indonesia, Israel and Turkey, among other nations. He was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer based in Venezuela and a foreign exchange analyst at the Federal Reserve. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University SAIS, an M.B.A. in International Finance from the Wharton School, and a B.A. in Political Science from Tufts University. He currently teaches International Relations at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy.

Areas of Focus:
International Political Economy; American Foreign Policy