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Arabs are doing big things

Posted by Ashish Sinha on February 1, 2011

What is happening now in North Africa and the Middle East should give people in the region and around the world a reason to hope. Although the outcomes of the revolt in Tunisia, the protests in Egypt, and the unrest in other Arab countries are not yet written; the strength of the popular uprisings have put the spotlight on human rights, and more importantly, on the oppressive regimes that deny those rights. Today, protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Alexandria, and all over Egypt are delivering a non-violent message to Hosni Mubarak that his government’s reign in Egypt is over. That message sits uncomfortably among governments around the world, like our own, who supported Mubarak at the expense of the Egyptian people.

Over the past week, we have seen that discomfort played out in the awkward reactions coming out of Democratic and Republican leaders and the Administration. As they applaud the aspirations of the protesters in Egypt on the one hand; they also hedge their bets by saying that Mubarak and his government are allies and call for restraint “on both sides.” That type of false equivalency and moral burden will surprise few in the Middle East who have come to expect the United States of America to act in their own short-term self interest.

Our country’s foreign policy is nothing like the ideals and vision that helped spark that remarkable Virginian in writing a deceleration of grievances against King George III a few centuries ago. There was nothing short-term or realistic about the Continental Congress deciding that democracy was worth creating a loose confederation of pioneers, blacksmiths, and farmers to oppose the world’s preeminent superpower. All over the world, the United States has given aid and comfort to leaders who have done far worse things to their people than marginally increasing the cost of tea without representation.

For some reason, the sanctity of our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the words of our political forefathers, like Locke, Jefferson and Mill - stop at the water’s edge. Why is it that we believe that, for our citizens, restrictions to free speech and voting would neither be justified or effective in stamping out radicalism; whereas, for those who happen to live on a different piece of land, that they can be moderated through oppression? Those ideas that shaped the formation of the United States of America are more powerful than we know and, every time we deny that, we diminish the potential of our country. The situation in the Middle East should be evidence that our current foreign policy of “strategic partnerships” with leaders like Saddam Hussein and Mubarak is an, ultimately, self-defeating one.

If we are truly an exceptional country then we need to start believing in that which makes us unique as a country - not that which makes us the same as every other empire or superpower in history. While it’s not American troops or police who have been suppressing Egyptians - it is weapons and ammunition that are “Made in the USA” that litter the streets of Egypt after a protest is suppressed. If we are, as President Barack Obama exhorted during his State of the Union address, capable of doing big things, then surely stopping military aid to oppressive regimes would be one of the easier check boxes to tick off on the list of restoring America’s promise.

What is happening on the streets of Cairo is intertwined with the aspirations of that group of Boston physicians who gathered in a living room 50 years ago to form Physicians for Social Responsibility to advocate for a world free of nuclear weapons. A better world will not be created by leaders who believe in stability over all else but by those citizens who are willing to take a risk at an uncertain future defined by just and moral intentions. As we move forward, our organization will continue to advocate for a national security agenda that is moral, long-term in scope, and prevents what we can not cure.


Rahul S. said ..

Judy: The UN is often slow to act; individual nations' display of interest are often a first step, rather than an act of subversion. Dan: I agree that many/most of our attempts at "spreading democracy" have ended in failure, if not disaster. At the same time, our mixed messages on Egypt have been commented about extensively and negatively by some of the leaders of the various groups that made up the Egyptian protests, as well as the more reform-minded Arab press outlets. Perhaps we would have faced criticism either way, perhaps it was a damned-if-we-do/don't situation. Perhaps not. Ashish: I think a more overt display of support might be required precisely because we've been so complicit in supporting the previous regime over the years. We should be offering aid, election monitors, technical assistance, etc.

February 23, 2011
Judy Hart said ..

I think the advisory roll Obama has taken in Egypt's problems, should be handled by the UN. We should be concerned with our own problems. No one country should subvert the roll of the UN. We have been doing it for many decades. It harms other nations and makes us neglect our own needs.

February 7, 2011
Madeline Riley said ..

"Imagine a world where EVERY child is wanted, nurtured, protected and loved: World peace in one generation!"

February 3, 2011
Michael said ..

Really nice post. I thought the part comparing our founding fathers' grievances and those of currently oppressed groups was really thought-provoking. Foreign policy sometimes (not always) has to balance the trade-off between representing our ideals and pursuing a strategic position. My read of your post is that you think we've overemphasized the strategic elements and that this is a problem both idealistically and from a long-term non-idealistic perspective. I tend to agree, particularly as the long-run consequences of our foreign policies are starting to be felt (as mentioned in other comments and the article, we have funded many movements that have used our support against innocent people). One question that makes me pause though is how would we respond if instead of Egypt this were Pakistan? In a somewhat similar situation, we are lending significant support to an autocratic regime. But upheaval in Pakistan (or another country with nuclear arms) could prove very dangerous. I'd still agree with you that the US needs to support its ideals, but I would also understand if the administration were particularly hesitant to take a side. I think the Egyptian movement is really remarkable in that it seems to have such a strong base of support and cut across many segments of society. This certainly makes it easier as an outsider to support it from both an idealistic and strategic perspective.

February 2, 2011
Ashish Sinha said ..

Thanks for the comment Dan! I think your assessment of the situation is right on point. Our clumsy involvement in the political processes of Middle Eastern countries should make us extremely wary of doing so again. During the "Green Revolution" in Iran, I was glad to see that President Obama did not do more then release a few statements early on saying that they condemn the Iranian government and applaud the protesters. The difference I see here is that we are not neutral observers to the political process in Egypt but, rather, a major player. This year, alone, we are providing Egypt with 1.3 billion dollars in military assistance. Since 1979, we have provided Egypt with 35 billion dollars. That works out to roughly 3.5 million dollars a day and represents 80% of Egypt's military procurement budget. We have been and continue to be a reason that Mubarak has managed to keep his grip on power despite a proliferation of human rights abuses. I don't think President Obama should inject itself as players into the negotiation process between opposition parties and Mubarak. Mostly because the opportunity for the United States to be an ally to pro-democracy elements of the opposition has long since passed. I would advocate, as I briefly mention in the post, that the United States should cease giving Mubarak military aid. I also think that this, as you point out, is part of a pattern in US Foreign Policy that should necessitate a fundamental review of how we deal with oppressive regimes. While diplomacy should never be off the table - military aid should not be used as a tool to support pro-western dictators.

February 2, 2011
Dan said ..

I don't think it's as simple as supporting freedom and human rights and opposing dictators. As we have seen in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, U.S. involvement in political affairs can lead to disasterous unforseen results. We backed the Shah of Iran, in spite of his bad human rights record. But this backing led to the Iranian people seeing him as a U.S. puppet, facilitating the rise of Khomeini and decades of using the U.S. as a political scapegoat (and more human rights abuses). On the other hand, we decided not to tolerate Saddam in 2003, but his ousting was reviled by most of the world and was a clear example of U.S. militaristic abuse. Of course, decades earlier during the Iran-Iraq War, the American government supplied and supported him against the Ayatollah (which strengthened his regime). The U.S. funded Al-Qaeda against the Soviets in Afghanistan, but that didn't end well either. The fact is, it is impossible to know how these kinds of revolutionary situations will end up. More often than not, U.S. involvement (whether vocal or militaristic) leads to an unintentional result. During the most recent elections in Iran, the reform party even warned the U.S. not to actively endorse them, as it would cause them to be labeled in the public eye as an instrument of America (as had been the Shah). The same goes in Egypt. I support the Obama administration's decision not to fling their weight behind either side in this regime tug-of-war. The only thing that the administration has been adamant about is that protestors and the government reach an agreement through non-violent means. Obama has placed himself squarely on the sidelines-- which is exactly where he should be, along with everybody else who is not Egyptian. If there is a democracy to come out of this whole mess, it must be a purely Egyptian creation for it to last. To everybody, this conflict seems like Mubarak vs. the Egyption people. That is blatantly false. Mubarak has his supporters (just as every dictator has had), and their voice deserves to be heard as Egypt moves forward. If it is to be drowned out, let it be drowned out by Egyptian voices calling for reforms, not by American rhetoric or cruise missiles. There is, of course, the risk that another dictatorship (perhaps one of the extreme Islamic variety) will rise to power. But, as we have seen, the Egyptian people are perfectly capable of revolting if they don't like that new regime either.

February 2, 2011
Madeline Riley said ..

This article makes me proud Ashish and it would also make certain Civil Rights leader proud.

February 2, 2011
Madeline Riley said ..

Here is my take on what's happening in Cairo, Non Violent Protest like in the 60's. Martin Luther King would be proud of the Egyptians, and proud of Ashish Sinha.

February 2, 2011
Natasha said ..

At the foundation of peace is justice. Thank you for highlighting this to our network!

February 1, 2011

Comments closed.