The events going on in Egypt are doing wonders for the reputations of a number of American politicians and pundits — mainly exposing a lot of people for being far less knowledgeable and correct than they would have us believe. But with the full story still yet to develop, and the sheer unprecedented nature of things, I’m willing to give a bit of a pass to a lot of people I normally enjoy kicking — and withhold credit from those whom I normally praise.
First up, it’s beyond dispute that the Obama administration did a really crappy job. They didn’t see how fast things would play out, tried to play both sides of the game, and in the end only managed in looking like the clueless twits many of us pegged them as years ago. In the end, we demonstrated both that we will not solidly back those who have been allies for decades against internal turmoil, nor will we lend solid support to repressed people trying to overthrow a corrupt dictatorship. So we both alienated other allies and people seeking freedom. Quite a coup.
On the other hand, while it’s true that the Obama administration totally botched the situation, I don’t think there was any good solution available. Strictly speaking, the Egyptian turmoil is a purely internal matter, without outside agitators and agents of other nations fomenting dissent (like in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Lebanon, just to name three). As such, the principle of national sovereignty plays a role, and we shouldn’t get too involved in that sort of thing. For another, while Mubarak was a corrupt dictator, there are a lot of those around the world — and he was hardly the worst out there. Compared to Syria’s Assad, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, or Cuba’s Castros, just to name three, Mubarak was positively enlightened and liberal and benevolent.
So I’m not going to spend much energy on how Obama “lost” Egypt, regardless of how it plays out. Yeah, he and his regime are hopelessly out of their depths, but I don’t think anyone could have handled it in a way that would work out much better.
On the other hand, quite a few people are crowing about how Sarah Palin was out in front of things, castigating the Obama administration and predicting that Mubarak would be gone soon — and we should prepare to deal with the aftermath.
The few times I’ve talked about Palin, I’ve mainly defended her against what I saw as unfair attacks. I’ve taken the side of reality and truth, as I see them. In that spirit, here I’m going to deny her what I see as unearned praise.
Palin’s comments were more aimed at the ineptitude of the Obama administration, and seem to be based more on an application of Murphy’s Law on Obama — “anything they can get wrong, they will get wrong” — than a superior insight into the events in Egypt. I happen to agree with that principle, but it’s hardly a good touchstone for predicting events in other nations.
But all that is domestic distractions. What is far more important is trying to figure out what will happen in Egypt — and how we should deal with that.
The problem, as I’ve noted many times before, is that what is happening now has never happened before — and the only similar situations have not ended well.
Consider, if you will, a Venn Diagram. Label one circle “Arab Nations.” Label the other “Muslim Nations.” The overlap is considerable — there are very few non-Arab Muslim nations, and I don’t think there are any Arabic non-Muslim nations. And within those overlapping spheres, the political realities are very dark.
In the Arab/Muslim world, it seems that there are two “natural” forms of government. With very few exceptions, most of those governments can be categorized as “theocratic tyrannies” and “corrupt dictatorships.” And when things change, it’s usually to switch between the two forms.
So when one of those governments shows signs of toppling, it’s kind of hard to solidly back their downfall — because there’s not only no guarantee that the replacement government will be better, but considerable history that shows it very well might be worse — worse for both its people, and the world in general.
Genuine secular, enlightened democracies are extremely rare in the Arab/Muslim world. Turkey succeeded, largely through the efforts of a “benevolent dictator” in the form of Ataturk — but militant Islam is experiencing a resurgence there. And Indonesia, the nation that holds more Muslims than any other, is a democratic republic. But these two are the aberrations, not the norm.
It’s often been noted that freedom is not the natural state of Man, and there is a lot of truth to it. Truly free states — states that recognize the sovereignty of the people, that regularly hold free and fair elections, and respect the rights of individuals — are relatively rare and require constant vigilance to preserve. This truism is even more accurate in the Arab/Muslim world.
Of course, such things are infinitely preferable to the dictatorships and tyrannies that govern most of the world’s populace. But they are never easy to start, and harder to maintain.
Will such a state emerge in post-Mubarak Egypt? It would be great if it did. But it is in no way guaranteed. Further, it is probably the hardest and least likely to emerge.
We should hope for that. If possible, we should encourage it. But there is absolutely no guarantee that it will, and considerable indicators that it will not. So while we hope for the best, we should prepare for the worst.
And that includes the Muslim Brotherhood’s proclamations that Egypt should become an Islamist state, enforcing Sharia law, repudiating the peace treaty with Israel, and even shutting down the Suez Canal.
In the 1950s, Egypt’s President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. In response, England, France, and Israel invaded and seized the Canal. It didn’t end well, but it did secure the rights of all nations to use the Canal without discrimination.
The closing of the Canal would have a devastating affect on the world’s economy. And a militarily resurgent Egypt resuming its hostility towards Israel would likewise wreak havoc on the world.
We should hope like hell that things don’t unfold that way. But we would be fools if we didn’t take into account that it might happen, and make plans accordingly.