02.13.11

America's Proud Egypt Moment

Forced to choose between national interests and national ideals, the Obama administration, and many of its fiercest domestic critics, chose ideals. That's a remarkable achievement, writes Peter Beinart.

Forced to choose between national interests and national ideals, the Obama administration, and many of its fiercest domestic critics, chose ideals. That’s a remarkable achievement, writes Peter Beinart. Plus, Mike Giglio on Egypt's Facebook freedom fighter.

Ever since the financial crisis hit, Americans have been feeling bad about ourselves. Our infrastructure is moldering; we owe everyone money; barely anyone thinks we’re the future anymore. All that may be true. But now and then an episode comes along that reveals what an unusual, and impressive, great power the United States still is. That’s what the Egyptian revolution has done.

Yes, of course, the Egyptians made their own revolution; America played a bit role. And yes, we guiltlessly buttressed Mubarak’s tyranny for decades. But in the last three weeks, America has nonetheless vindicated George W. Bush’s 2004 pledge to the oppressed peoples of the world: “when you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” Forced to choose between national interests and national ideals, the Obama administration—after a little stammering—chose the latter, and so did many of its fiercest domestic critics. That’s a pretty remarkable thing.

Since World War II, after all, international-relations theory has been dominated by “realism,” a doctrine that sees ideology as a thin veneer covering national interest, which is to say: a nation’s effort to maximize its power. International theory has also been influenced by Marxism, and while Marxists do believe that ideology influences American foreign policy, they mostly define that ideology as capitalism, and generally consider the U.S. downright hostile to global democracy. Since January, both those theories have been tested, and found wanting. Hosni Mubarak’s regime was the foundation stone—along with Israel and Saudi Arabia—of American power in the Middle East. It tortured suspected Al Qaeda terrorists for us, pressured the Palestinians for us, and did its best to contain Iran. And it sat atop a population eager—secular and Islamist alike--not only to reverse those policies, but to rid the middle east of American power. And yet we cast our lot with that population, not their ruler.

Cynics might argue that the U.S. only helped show Mubarak the door when it became clear he was headed in that direction anyway, and that doing so was simply an effort to curry favor with his likely successors. But ask yourself this: what would China have done? If Beijing had been Mubarak’s prime patron rather than Washington, it’s a good bet that Mubarak would still be in power, and thousands of corpses would litter Tahrir Square.

When nations rise up nonviolently against their pro-American tyrants, Americans across the political spectrum grow ashamed, and that shame can be the difference between a peaceful revolution and Tiananmen Square.

As remarkable as Obama’s behavior has been by the standards of international-relations theory, what’s just as remarkable is that most of his domestic political opponents agree with him. Some on the right have tried to shoehorn Obama’s refusal to stand by Mubarak into the “Democrats are soft radical Islam” meme. But Republican Party foreign policy remains dominated by intellectuals who believe in the possibility, and necessity, of democracy’s spread. In recent days we’ve been hearing a lot about Jimmy Carter’s refusal to back the Shah of Iran, yet that trauma, which exercised such power over Jeane Kirkpatrick and an earlier cohort of neoconservatives, means little to a newer generation, composed of people like Elliot Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz and Robert Kagan, who came of age watching Ronald Reagan help usher out pro-American dictatorships from the Philippines to El Salvador.

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Mike Giglio: Egypt’s Facebook Freedom Fighter
When it came to Egypt, in fact, the relevant divide wasn’t between neoconservatives and liberals, both of whom generally supported the folks in Tahrir square. It was between neoconservatives and Islamophobes, the kind of folks who think the real problem with the Middle East is the Koran itself. The other divide was between the neoconservatives and Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government yearned for Mubarak to stay. The parting of ways between the American and Israeli right over the past few weeks should end once and for all the canard that neoconservatism is a creed hatched in the Knesset. For all its flaws, contemporary neoconservatism is a deeply American doctrine, very different from the more pessimistic worldview that dominates Likud.

The point isn’t that America is always a force for democracy. Far from it. But when nations rise up nonviolently against their pro-American tyrants, Americans across the political spectrum grow ashamed, and that shame can be the difference between a peaceful revolution and Tiananmen Square. These days, amidst our national self-flagellation and our anxieties about decline, that’s something worth savoring. In 2009, Barack Obama told an audience in Cairo that “America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.” Now, in 2011, he—and we—have proved it. It’s a proud moment for Egypt, and for America too.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.