Middle East,  Obama

Will Obama offend his host?

President Obama will make his promised speech to “the Muslim world” (an unhelpful term, but never mind) while in Egypt next month.

The speech will succeed only to the extent that it angers his host, the autocratic Hosni Mubarak, and heartens liberal Egyptian democrats who oppose Mubarak– dissidents such as Ayman Nour and Saad Eddin Ibrahim.

The Washington Post reports:

By selecting Egypt, Obama could expose himself to criticism in the Arab Middle East for showing tacit support for President Hosni Mubarak, who has governed the country for nearly three decades with scant tolerance for political opposition. The 81-year-old Mubarak, who is scheduled to meet with Obama in Washington this month, has used his security services to harass and detain political rivals and is preparing for his son to succeed him.

U.S. support for Mubarak and other unelected Arab leaders has been interpreted across the Middle East as a hypocritical element of American foreign policy, particularly in the past eight years, during which the Bush administration made promoting democracy the centerpiece of its diplomacy in the region.

Nour, a former presidential candidate who was recently freed after more than three years in prison, put it more strongly:

“America’s standing alongside authoritarian regimes is what created terrorism in the Arab world… It is what strengthened the thorn of extremism in the Arab world.”

You don’t have to agree with that analysis to realize that the more the Egyptian government represses people like Nour and Ibrahim (who is living is self-imposed exile), the more of an opening it creates for far less desirable opposition forces– like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Probably the wisest words President Bush spoke in his eight years in office (admittedly there wasn’t much competition) were the following:

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe — because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.

In the end, however, despite occasionally hopeful signs, the Bush administration never could bring itself to stop excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom among such putative allies as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Unfortunately the early signs from the Obama administration are not so good either. A recent Washington Post editorial raised some reasonable concerns:

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates earned modest headlines in the United States this week for playing down the possibility of a “grand bargain” with Iran after a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But al-Jazeera, the leading media outlet of the Arab Middle East, focused on an entirely different piece of news out of Mr. Gates’s Cairo news conference. Asked whether U.S. aid to Egypt would be linked in the future to democracy or human rights, the Pentagon chief answered that “foreign military financing” for Mr. Mubarak’s autocracy “should be without conditions. And that is our sustained position.”

The Obama administration, which has rushed to embrace Egypt’s 81-year-old strongman, would do well to consider why al-Jazeera — not known for pro-American sympathies — would choose to trumpet that report…

…[A]s al-Jazeera well understands, Mr. Mubarak and his fellow Arab autocrats are widely despised across the region — and the United States is blamed for unconditionally propping them up. In fact, Mr. Bush won credit from many Egyptians for pressing for democratic change; he was criticized because he failed to follow through. Now, Arabs around the region are learning that the Obama administration is returning to the old U.S. policy of ignoring human rights abuses by Arab dictators in exchange for their cooperation on security matters — that is, the same policy that produced the Middle East of Osama bin Laden, Hamas and Saddam Hussein.

…The Egyptian ruler continues to pledge to stop arms trafficking to Hamas in Gaza, and to fail to do so. He keeps a cold peace with Israel, withholds an ambassador from Iraq and, as Mr. Gates tacitly acknowledged, opposes any broad rapprochement between the United States and Iran. He is grooming his son to succeed him, a step that could entrench Egypt’s autocracy for decades more — or maybe produce an Islamic revolution. Does all that really merit unconditional U.S. support?

The point– which supporters of democracy need to make repeatedly– is that the alleged divide between “realism” and “idealism” in foreign policy is a chimera. Supporting the brave people struggling for democracy under repressive regimes– even at the expense of offending “friends”– is realism in action.

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