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America’s Foreign Policy Revolution

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Posted on Feb 3, 2011

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.

The democratic uprising in Egypt has brought into relief a gradual and little-noticed transformation in American politics. Over the last decade, ideological divisions over the role of democracy and human rights in American foreign policy have been scrambled.

In the meantime, President Obama has restored foreign policy realism to the White House, giving a liberal gloss to what had traditionally been a conservative disposition. This mildly liberal realism explains why Obama and his team have been so cautious in their dealings with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The most striking change is among conservatives. In the past, the default position of much of the American right was to support foreign strongmen friendly to the United States, on the theory that whoever succeeded them would be worse for their own people and disastrous for American interests.

This view was especially powerful during the Cold War when conservatives strongly criticized former President Jimmy Carter for encouraging the fall of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, whose government was replaced by Daniel Ortega’s leftist Sandinista movement. Carter was also condemned for undercutting the shah of Iran during the revolt that culminated in the rise of an Islamic government that still rules in Tehran.

The most celebrated expression of this conservative critique came from the late Jeane Kirkpatrick in a 1979 Commentary magazine article, “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” The essay called her to the attention of Ronald Reagan, who later appointed her as United Nations ambassador.

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Kirkpatrick criticized Carter for being so fearful of opposing the “forces of democracy” that he was led in both cases “to assist actively in deposing an erstwhile friend and ally and installing a government hostile to American interests and policies in the world.”

She added that “no idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances.”

Yet now, many in the neoconservative movement of which Kirkpatrick was a proud member come close to the view Kirkpatrick criticized—that “it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances”—and have long been urging Obama to distance the U.S. from Mubarak’s regime.

Robert Kagan, one of the leading neoconservative foreign voices, has been in the forefront of those arguing that the United States needed to be more prepared for a democratic rebellion in Egypt, and he was among the specialists brought to the White House this week for a discussion of next steps on Egypt.

In an NPR interview on Wednesday, Kagan offered the classic view of human rights advocates: that the U.S. should avoid a repeat of its excessively long-lived loyalty to the shah, which had the effect of “alienating the Iranian people for decades.” Kagan also warned against the “illusory search for stability.”

There is a great irony here for those liberals who passionately took issue with the neoconservative crusade to impose democracy by force but nonetheless share the view that American foreign policy should be more animated by democratic values.

And note that conservatives who take the old realist view—Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich., for example, declared that the “Egyptian demonstrations are the reprise of Iran’s 1979 radical revolution” and called on the U.S. to “stand with her ally Egypt to preserve an imperfect government capable of reform”—now seem isolated.

The resulting split on the conservative side has been helpful to Obama and he has won support for his cautious dealings with Mubarak from Republican congressional leaders.

If there was ever any doubt, it is now clear that Obama is more a realist than a human rights crusader, even if he has tried to square this circle in recent days by repeatedly invoking “universal” rights and values.

The existence of a pro-democracy conservative camp has made it easier for Obama to move away from Mubarak, since there is less risk of a conservative backlash if things go wrong in Egypt than there would be if most on the right were taking McCotter’s view. At the same time, many Republicans still quietly harbor realist instincts and thus sympathize with Obama’s careful approach.

Ultimately, Obama will be judged by results. If the Egyptian uprising eventually leads to an undemocratic regime hostile to the United States and Israel, the president will pay the price. This explains his caution. But for now, he has room to maneuver, thanks in part to the very neoconservatives whose Iraq policies he so strongly opposed.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
   
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group


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By gerard, February 7, 2011 at 1:11 am Link to this comment

From the excellent video discussions I have watched on English Al Jazeera under the title “Empire” it certainly appears that “world government” (such as it is) has been more or less snatched out of the hands of both the United Nations and Washington, DC, and is in the hands of a group of about 30 powerful international corporate bigwigs who are manipulating and controlling the bulk of funds and deciding most of the policies. Of course a large proportion of them are Americans.  Scarey stuff, however.  Not that I judge totally from a few video discussions, but my initiation to this cite recently has been a revelation compared to US ” news.”  Apparently we don’t know the half of it.

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Rigor's avatar

By Rigor, February 6, 2011 at 9:27 pm Link to this comment

E.J. has the most talked about news item not
reported for decades - the decline of US integrity
in the world.

Where the majority of the US really believe we as a
nation strive to do the right thing by our fellow
man, the politics are a different world all
together.
It’s time to step back and practice some humility,
let other sovereign nations sort out their own
issues for themselves - so lets just pack up our
toys and head home, you know; stop all the damn aid
funding and get back to taking care of our own
people. Uh Oh, wait a minute - can’t do that huh?

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By jc, February 5, 2011 at 9:54 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Corporations eventually will get what they want, even if Egyptian people receive their demands at first.  Thugs will eventually take over.  If Egypt actually becomes a true democracy, that will be great!  I hope that I am wrong that thugs take over Egypt and rest of the country.

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By firefly, February 5, 2011 at 6:08 pm Link to this comment

What a stupid article. It simply pays lip service to
the notion that the President of the US, is actually
the puppet-master, and has an obligation to the
American people, to ensure the right person to rule
another country. What Egyptians choose should have
nothing to do with Obama, nor should it affect Obama’s
own performance as president to the American people
alone.

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By rollzone, February 3, 2011 at 10:39 pm Link to this comment

hello. we give more rights to illegals than the
supreme rulers give to their slaves in the middle
east. once the slaves see how Americans live, and it
is our fault sharing so much of how we live, they
want to walk like Americans. they can not leave, and
they do not have the coalition will to seize power,
and establish a controlling rule. we can not help
them become more democratic until they determine
their own destiny. we can help anywhere in the world,
once they show the world court it is their combined
wish to be more democratic. we should stop shipping
our goods through the canal. we can go around. we do
not need to pay the blackmail and fees which support
the wrong ruler. so we have had more than just a
cowering room to maneuver. it is more about the
slaves of Egypt wanting to throw off the shackles of
2000 year old traditions, because they believe what
they see in America is real and attainable for
themselves, and most of their citizens agree with
them, because it is true; than it is up to us to
support what may be a very outraged vocal minority.
the grievances are real, but the whole population has
to want democracy, even if just some democracy and
some theocracy mixed. before we can help, we have to
be shown it is their will. they have to take power
from those unwilling to give. then we are forever
Christians with big guns, not just during elections.
the great imperialistic Super Bowl party is coming,
so decide fast, or they will slaughter you faster
than the half time show.

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By gerard, February 3, 2011 at 10:38 pm Link to this comment

It is disgusting that all the time we (USA) prate about “democracy” and “human rights” in the rest of the world, shaking fingers and hastening to point out what “they” should or should not do, we walk the expedient line of silence while people who are being shot in the name of “self-government” are victims of weapons too often made in America, and their armies are following tactics taught and advocated by our military “strategists.”
  Furthermore, if our own people dared to “take to the streets” in the real interests of our own democracy, the same weapons and tactics would quite probably be used against us. As if there were no better ways to manage national and international relations.
  Let’s explore those better ways together in any and every way we can!

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By gerard, February 3, 2011 at 10:38 pm Link to this comment

It is disgusting that all the time we (USA) prate about “democracy” and “human rights” in the rest of the world, shaking fingers and hastening to point out what “they” should or should not do, we walk the expedient line of silence while people who are being shot in the name of “self-government” are victims of weapons too often made in America, and their armies are following tactics taught and advocated by our military “strategists.”
  Furthermore, if our own people dared to “take to the streets” in the real interests of our own democracy, the same weapons and tactics would quite probably be used against us. As if there were no better ways to manage national and international relations.
  Let’s explore those better ways together in any and every way we can!

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By sophrosyne, February 3, 2011 at 8:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why worry about Israeli interests?  Let us worry about ours.  We are held hostage by the unpopularity of that aggressive, vicious country by virtually everyone around the world.

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By faultroy, February 3, 2011 at 8:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr/Ms Dionne made a few good points, but I would like to add: Not all conservatives are neocons. And our current conservative movement (i.e. vanguarded by the TEA party) would defnitely disagree with the idea of propping up dictator governments. Most of us tilt closer to the Libertarian view. That would be staying out of foreign governments’ business and let countries naturally evolve. But that is much easier said than done. Everyone recognizes that we have strategic interests that cannot be denied. Therefore the devil is in the details. However, as far as a generalized policy is concerned, Most conservatives would agree that the days of the USA dictating to other courntries is long gone. And we have had years of fruitless wars, huge deficits and little if any real political change to show for those trillions of dollars invested by the American Taxpayer.

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By Anarcissie, February 3, 2011 at 8:15 pm Link to this comment

Well, if you want to do away with democracy, you ought to specify just what you want to put in its place.

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By prisnersdilema, February 3, 2011 at 12:09 pm Link to this comment

E.J.Dionne’s weekly comic strip… except its not funny…. it’s pathetically convoluted, and pointless.

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By Big B, February 3, 2011 at 9:06 am Link to this comment

The USA has never, and will never support democracy of any kind in the third world. Anyone in this nation that has not figured that out yet has either had a lobotomy, or is scheduled for one.

We have always supported any military strongman that wraps himself in american flag and pledged to be anti-communist/socialist. We have always preferred Facist madmen over a freely elected socialist leaning goverment. Why? It’s just business folks. It is Teddy Roosevelts wet dream of gunboat diplomacy. Instead of having a huge military sitting around getting rusty, you use them to not only protect US corporate business interests overseas, but also to open up and influence new markets. And now we even have them fighting the first of the 21st century resource wars.

We americans are only interested in democracy here in the US (such that it is). We don’t support free elections anywhere in the third world, for we have backed their oppressors for so long that we know that, given the opportunity, the people would vote anybody claiming to be even the least bit socialist.

Our policies are making us the beggars to our own demise. It will take a little longer, but it will eventually happen here. Our poor and former middle class just aren’t desperate enough. Yet.

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