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The Egyptian Revolution

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Yes, Glenn Beck really is nuts. 'Frenimies' and Tunisia as Arch Duke Ferdinand.


BUSAN, South Korea - Regarding the video selected above, it is ‘important’ to start off with this to illustrate the sheer insanity of the US conservatives’ foreign policy concerns in the Middle East that it reveals. Apparently the Egyptian revolution is an Islamist plot that will turn the Mediterranean into an Islamic lake, allow Russia to control Northern Europe, and China to control India and Pakistan. Don’t believe me? Glenn Beck’s sweeping hand movements will explain all. (Wink, wink)

What we are seeing is one of those critical junctures when observers should go on the record about what to do. If all this somehow goes wrong, everyone will blame Obama in 20/20 hindsight. That will inevitably be partisan and unfair, because the Obama administration is making decisions under huge uncertainty. Credibility requires one to go on record now, when information is limited and we all have to make our best guess.

That US conservatives are badly split signals this huge uncertainty. Absolute moral certainty is a central pose of the American right’s self-image (tax hikes are always bad, Iraq 2 was a good idea no matter what), so if even the Right –  which takes foreign policy more seriously than domestic-focused US liberals – is divided, that tells you just how confused everyone really is.

For the neo-con take that this really is about democracy, try Gerecht (excellent); for the gloomy realism that we should hew to the Egyptian military, try Krauthammer (depressing, but also good). And for the downright bizarre conspiratorial stuff, watch the above vid.

So here’s my line: I’ll say that Krauthammer and the realists are wrong. The Iran parallel is inaccurate; this will not lead to a Muslim Brothers’ dictatorship. Further, the support of democracy is, in itself, an important value. Even if there was a serious risk of an Islamist takeover, we should still pressure Mubarak to get out, nor support a military oligarchy (Krauthammer). Who wants to look back in 10 years and say we supported yet another authoritarian in one of the worst governed places on earth and that we didn’t take the chance to push for something better, even if it was risky? How awful and embarrassing for the US; what a betrayal of all those heroic people we’ve seen on TV. And if they want Islamists in the government, well, it is ultimately their country. So long as it remains a democracy (the difference between Turkey’s Islamists’ participation, and Hamas’ budding oligarchy), then we have to allow them to disagree with us as is their right.

Risking fanatics in government is part of democracy (witness, ahem, Sarah Palin). If we believe in it for ourselves, then we must be true to it for them. So, no, this is not a result of George Bush’s foreign policy, but we should support it anyway.

The Israel Factor

Israel should not drive our policy toward Egypt. Has anyone else noticed how much of this discussion has gotten hijacked by the ‘what-will-happen-to-Israel’ externality? (Try here, here, here, here, and here.) This is embarrassing and almost sycophantic. You can’t blame the Arabs for disbelieving we’re an honest broker when the fate of 6 million people in a different country outweighs the 85 million of the country that is actually the center of the story. Really? Should the US point of origin for yet another Middle East event be Israel’s benefit? We are two separate countries, right? Maybe we should care about the Egyptians themselves, right?

Israel does have the finest military in the region, nuclear weapons, and a take-no-prisoners lobby in the US Congress, right? Don’t misunderstand me. I realize that Israel’s security is important for the US and that it is the only democracy in the region (although that is increasingly under question). I want Israel to be secure too; I’ve traveled there 3 times and unconditionally support its right to exist. If it would help, usher them into NATO or the EU, or extend formal US deterrence guarantees, even nuclear. But it’s long-overdue time that we break the habit looking over our shoulder to Israel on Middle East issues, and it’s extremely immoral to support continued Egyptian authoritarianism on the (likely correct) premise that a democratic Egypt will push Israel harder. That sells out the admirable sacrifice of 85 million for 6 million who voted for an openly provocative right-wing government.

Chinese/Iranian Parallels

The Egyptian Army’s Moral Superiority to China is worth noting. China shot its own people; Egypt has not. Much of the analysis has focused on possible parallels with Iran 1979. But another more recent parallel, especially relevant to this website, is Tiananmen Square 1989. In their moment of crisis, the Chinese turned their guns on themselves, and the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) will be forever stained by the blood of its own citizens en masse. This strikes me as major moment in the evolution of dictatorships. All dictatorships suffer from legitimacy problems, of course, but none want to openly rely on naked force.

Militaries are usually the hidden, albeit central, prop in dictatorships, but they don’t actually want to do the dirty work themselves. That is for the paramilitary thugs and secret police. No officer wants to think the primary enemy of the a state’s military is its own people, not some foreign enemy. Their dignitary and right to rule is based on the whole idea that thy are defending the people, not massacring them; in fact this is the myth of 1952 Free Officers coup in Egypt itself. Hence the call by a dictator in dire straits to shoot the citizenry is a rubicon for any army that cannot be uncrossed.

In 1989, the eastern European militaries balked; in China, the PLA did not. My sense is that the social costs to the PLA were lower though, because China is so big. The CCP purposefully brought in rural PLA units for whom Beijing was like another planet. But in small countries like Poland 1989 or Egypt today, army repression in the capital would immediately be felt and transmitted everywhere.

So hear, hear to the Egyptian military (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence). For all its corruption, despotism, and insulation, it still did the right thing when the chips were down. Did anyone imagine even a month ago that we’d be speaking of the moral superiority of the Egyptian military to the PLA?

Not surprisingly the Chinese haven’t discussed Egypt much and have actually gone as far as blocking Internet sites that talk about what is going on in Egypt, but I am disappointed the the Korean and Japanese press seems a bit disinterested. Initial coverage here focused on the possible loss of Middle East export markets. From this I would draw two conclusions. First, for all the talk about a flat world, cultural hurdles still matter a lot. The parties caught up in the war on terror (the West, Israel, the Arab/Muslim Middle East) are riveted by this, but East Asia just isn’t, sadly. My experience is that here they don’t really care much about the developing world. It’s far away, the languages and religions seem unintelligible, and the societies look backward, especially to those obsessed with development. East Asia worries a lot about the US, and some about Europe, but there is tremendous lack of knowledge about places like Latin America or Africa. Second, I think this disinterest is as much political as it is cultural. Newly wealthy places like Korea or China demonstrate their earned, rightful place in the OECD through an almost purposeful disdain for the third world. People love to demonstrate how worldly they are by spending a year in the US or West; I’ve never met a student or teacher who thought a year a in developing country would be vastly more interesting. (It is.) So Barnett’s ‘new core’ flaunts its new status by forgetting its roots in the third world: disinterest as a mark of superiority.

A Comment about the Commentary:

Frank Rich is right that far too few people have any idea what to say on Egypt because so much of the commentary is really about the US (or Israel). This Amero-centrism is why so many are saying the US should do this or that: the working assumption is that that US guides the world and can easily direct events. This is no longer true, so the mountain of US, rather than Egypt-focused commentary creates unrealistic expectations that the U.S. can direct this thing.

Rich also makes the excellent observation that if Americans could actually watch al Jazeera, they might actually learn something about Egypt itself. Instead the mainstream commentary has revealed the embarrassingly nativist ignorance of much of the punditocracy on anything beyond US borders. In general I was very pleased to see how well academics requited themselves in the blogosphere on this; I think especially Walt, Mead, Cole and the Duck of Minerva have been super.

But if you read the op-ed pages, you got recycled banality and the usual suspects: Friedman gave you his typical, ‘this-is-a-defining-moment-in-the-Middle East’ schtick; Bush neocons desperate for rehabilitation strove to take credit and somehow blame Obama for…what exactly?; Palin blithered; Parker told us that the big story was really about the US media and Cohen that it was about Israel; Colbert King forgot the rest of the world exists; and Beck, well, you already know – just watch the loopy video. Score yet another point for blogging.

Without the informed blogging voices of people who actually know something about Egypt and revolutions, you really wouldn’t learn much about the events at all. You’d have just gotten an endless series of stories from a royalist, uncosmopolitan press in which Washington was the real story, because that’s all the pundits know how to talk about.  Douthat, for example – and whom I think is a pretty good writer usually – clearly had nothing to say, so he just gave up and wrote about Obama yet again under the guise of Egypt. How easy; this is how the press for a nation of untraveled monolinguists infatuated with their own power evolves. Its all about us. By contrast, here is an example of a non-expert, trained in traditional Washington self-obsession, who nonetheless tried.  


Dr. Robert E. Kelly is an American professor of political science at PNU. You can read his Asian Security Blog here.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher.

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