There was a time when the U.S. government boldly supported democratic movements and spoke out unabashedly in favor of political and human rights. It wasn’t even that long ago—under the Bush and Reagan Administrations, actually—but it seems like eons. Consider President Obama’s comment in the State of the Union speech that the United States “stands with the people of Tunisia” (whatever this code means) while ignoring that at that very moment tens of thousands of demonstrators had taken to the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, protesting the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak.
It is true that the U.S. has a lot at stake in Egypt, an important ally and a keystone of regional stability. And the Egyptian opposition movement certainly has the potential to be hijacked by radical Islamists if it comes to power, more so than the predominantly secular opposition in Tunisia. Yet a moderate democratic political center is desperately what the country needs, and the Obama Administration has done nothing to encourage its emergence up to this point (unlike the Bush Administration, which kept Mubarak at arms length). Similarly, the Obama Administration squandered the opportunity to clearly pledge support to the opposition green movement in Iran in 2009, which would have yielded more potential benefits and entailed far fewer risks than supporting Egypt’s opposition.
The inevitable conclusion is that in the Obama era, the United States government will support you if you fight for democratic change—and have already won. Now, there is a bold stance for you. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has since amended this position to include a call for the Egyptian government to please keep the social networks of the Internet open. And President Obama went on YouTube Thursday to urge the Egyptian that political reforms were “absolutely critical” and reminded everyone that “violence is not the answer.” Courageous statements indeed.
Belatedly, Clinton took to the airwaves on Sunday for a full round of morning talk shows to declare U.S. support for free elections and a speedy political transition. This is a no-brainer at this point, when demonstrations and strikes are spreading throughout Egypt.
A similarly cautious, indeed faltering, tone has characterized the Obama Administration’s reaction to events in Yemen, where protesters—like those in Egypt, inspired by the Tunisian example—have similarly taken to the streets. And before these events, the June 2009 election in Iran severely befuddled the Administration, even though the regime in Tehran is as obviously unsavory as any on the planet. “The United States has refrained from commenting on the election in Iran. We obviously hope that the outcome reflects the genuine will and desire of the Iranian people,” White House spokesman Roberts Gibbs memorably stated. Later the State Department crowed about persuading Twitter to keep open its Internet network in order to allow Iranian protesters to use this tool for organizing. Yet, as helpful as this phone call might have been, the Obama Administration has since woefully neglected the plight of the many young Iranians who were subsequently jailed by the authorities as cyber dissidents.
Dealing with the growing frustration of millions of young people, their desire for liberty, and democracy in the Middle East has to be an absolute nightmare for an Administration that came into office with an avowed policy—also known as the Obama Doctrine—of reaching out to regimes across the world no matter how repressive or obnoxious—from Iran to China, Venezuela, and Cuba. Egypt is obviously an important ally of the United States in a highly volatile region, but it certainly does not represent a democratic system, nor has it for the past 30 years. Put it all together and you have a U.S. policy characterized by lack of principle, incoherence, internal contradictions, and, more than anything, obvious confusion.