US message to Arab world matters -- and Obama is sending the wrong one
The message the US projects abroad will resonate long after the final pass of the Super Bowl. The US must lend its full-throated support to the protesters of the Arab world. It matters – both for the future of the region, and the future of America. Sitting on the sidelines may cost us more than our regional standing; it may cost us our own ideals.
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'Strategic' interests and mixed messages
Foreign policy is a delicate art, and American "strategic" interests can sometimes call for partnerships with distasteful regimes and foreign leaders, particularly on security matters. But this nation may need to rethink the imagery it is projecting abroad to the masses of people still largely not free.Skip to next paragraph
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Though the Egyptian military has vowed not to fire on protesters and the Egyptian police force has withdrawn from the streets, if they were to again fire on protesters, chances are that they will be doing so with guns paid for by the US taxpayer, courtesy of more than $1.3 billion in military aid given to Egypt annually – the majority of its annual military budget. Mr. Mubarak has already sent US-licensed M1A1 Abrams Battle tanks rolling through Cairo, and US-built F-16 fighter jets made low-level passes over Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square on Sunday.
Top American leaders so far have said that they managed somehow to be on both the side of the Egyptian people and simultaneously the government, in an appalling indecisiveness that will be costly. President Barack Obama disappointingly refused last week to explicitly take sides, instead asking for both sides to avoid violence. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stopped at calling for “legitimate grievances” to be addressed, simply calling for “democratic and economic reform.”
No administration official went as far as to call for Mubarak to step down. There’s no question that there are legitimate concerns that, in a power vacuum, the Muslim Brotherhood may take power in Egypt, and gain momentum in its long push for a Islamist state. But even the Muslim Brotherhood has thrown its support behind the protesters explicitly, rallying behind emerging opposition leader Mr. ElBaradei – and America has not.
US may lose the security it seeks
What all this means is that whether Egyptian people succeed in ridding themselves of their nearly 30-year perpetual president, the people of Egypt will probably not count the Americans as friends – a stark, dramatic, and important point. And ironically, this moral ambivalence in the interests of stability may cost the United States the very security it’s seeking to protect.
Many of the dictators who are the targets of protests now have been welcomed in the White House, and honored with state visits, or fat, annual checks courtesy of the people of the United States. That is not to say that the United States should not engage in diplomatic relations at all with nations that have abhorrent human rights conditions. Relationships are necessary to leverage and press for democracy and reform, and economic incentives can help drive those points.
But without strong, concerted, and consistent messaging from the top – that America stands with those protesting because their children are starving and their youth are being beaten, one could not be blamed for thinking America is no longer leader of the free world. Despite being born of revolution itself, America has instead embraced those leaders in gilded palaces and gleaming jets, some of whom were installed by "the West" to begin with. Coupled with lingering doubts about American intentions related to Iraq, Guantanamo, and Abu Ghraib, increasingly it seems we can no longer be certain which team we're playing for.