John Hughes

Arab revolts: What would Reagan do?

President Reagan's championship of the unfree would have made him deeply sympathetic to the Egyptian protesters who toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Despite initial wavering, President Obama's response was in line with what Reagan might have done – let ideals triumph over the maneuverings of diplomacy.

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With major centennial ceremonies under way honoring Ronald Reagan, it is tempting to speculate how he would have responded to the dramatic events in Egypt.

President Reagan was an idealist who believed, and declared, that freedom was a God-given mandate deserved by all mankind. He experienced, confronted, and deplored two of the three most dangerous “isms” of our times: fascism and communism. Had he lived longer, he would certainly have confronted with vigor the third “ism,” Islamic extremism.

He believed that “America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.”

He was incensed at man’s inhumanity to man anywhere on the globe. He declared the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” he shouted in Berlin. Not always lauded while president, he is today praised for a significant role in ending the cold war.

He dreamed of a world free of nuclear weapons because he thought the concept of deterrence, killing millions of human beings, was “immoral.”

Although a strong supporter of Israel, Reagan got into a telephone shouting match with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1982, warning him that the “future relationship of their two nations was at stake” if Israelis did not halt a merciless attack on the people of Beirut, Lebanon.

I think his championship of the dispossessed and the unfree would have made him deeply sympathetic to the Egyptian protesters whose tenacity caused the resignation of the autocratic president Hosni Mubarak.

In 1986, Reagan told another autocrat, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, that it was time to make the transition from power. Marcos was a US ally, but he had lost touch with his people.

It seems probable that Reagan’s position, were he president of the United States today, would have been the same with Mr. Mubarak. Humanity, and Reagan’s commitment to all mankind’s right to freedom, would have triumphed over the maneuverings of diplomacy and the usefulness of the tarnished autocrat to US strategic interest.

President Obama, following his political drubbing in the midterm elections of 2010, has reportedly been reading up on the Reagan presidency, with particular emphasis on Reagan’s negotiating prowess and his ability to engender bipartisan support for his presidential agenda.

While there have been some mixed signals and early stumbling in the way the Obama administration has responded to the events in Egypt, the general result to date has probably not been all that different from the way a Reagan presidency might have reacted.

Mr. Obama has expressed empathy for the protesters and their pursuit of democracy, deplored thuggery against foreign reporters, warned against chaos, and in essence pulled the rug out from Mubarak while asserting that this is a decision for the Egyptian populace.

As almost everyone in Washington, in both government and punditry, has said, it has been a “complicated situation.” It is not easy taking a stand for principle that involves tossing overboard a sturdy ally ruling a critical nation.

In June 2009, Obama delivered a splendid speech in Cairo targeted at the Muslim region. “I have an unyielding belief,” he said, “that all people yearn for ... the ability to speak your mind and say how you are governed;... government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.”

The reaction in the Islamic world was generally positive, but later public opinion polls chronicled disappointment that there appeared to be no follow-up. Obama has the opportunity to redress that situation by wisely using US influence with the Egyptian military to ensure that the nation's new constitution, its new election, its new parliament, and its new government all reflect the spirit of democracy the protesting thousands fought for.

In so doing, he would properly be shining that beacon light on the freedom-loving people of which Reagan spoke.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary of State in the Reagan administration.

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