Egyptian dilemma: Self-evident truths vs. self-evident interests

The Wall Street Journal reported that the seismic transformation in Egypt has opened a wider debate between American conservatives centered on an age-old question: Should American foreign policy value freedom and liberty or stability and calculated foreign policy interests?

It is a debate that I’ve been thinking a lot about after hearing Glenn Beck pound President Obama for fanning the flames of the protesting horde. Beck thinks the whole exercise, and Obama’s encouragement of it, was a fool’s errand from the American perspective. He believes the infamous Muslim Brotherhood is destined to fill the power vacuum, a development that can only be bad news for America, Israel and our allies.

I can’t speak to Beck’s assumption that jihadis will inevitably claim the mantle of power in Egypt. And frankly neither can he. But his musings aren’t without some legitimacy. He made me wonder: Exactly who is right in all this?

Is America’s very practical interest in standing with “allies” in the Middle East uppermost, or are the “self-evident truths” of “life and liberty” self-evident for freedom-loving Egyptians too?

It is a thorny choice that’s fraught with peril, no matter which camp you plop down in. It’s a question that an oscillating Obama obviously wrestled with in the early days of it, too.

As the Journal notes, it’s a debate with modern origins in the Cold War. Then, conservatives (including Ronald Reagan) were captured by the thinking of conservative foreign policy luminary Jeane Kirkpatrick, who, according to the Journal, “argued that the U.S. was better off supporting authoritarian regimes friendly to America, even if their leaders were unsavory, than totalitarian Communist governments. The former might evolve toward democracies, she argued, while the latter never would.”

But the geo-political calculus in the here-and-now is different than the Cold War context that shaped Kirkpatrick’s (and Reagan’s) worldview. In Egypt, we are actually seeing one of those authoritarian regimes that’s trending toward democracy, as Kirkpatrick postulated nearly 30 years ago.

The turmoil in Egypt frames the present choice starkly. There, America had a bona fide friend in Hosni Mubarak, a leader who anchored one corner of the Arab world with something other than jihadist ambitions. Mubarak honored a decades-old peace deal with Israel, and quelled radicalism in the long stretch of the Arab street that he controlled.

But Mubarak also oppressed the freedom-loving and democratic impulses of peaceful Egyptians.

And that’s what has conservatives in an intellectual dust-up.

The Journal notes that big-stick conservatives like Dick Cheney, Charles Krauthammer and Beck take the view of hardened realists — America is better off with the despot we know than betting on a democracy movement that could lead to the elections of radical elements.

Bill Kristol, famed neo-con and chief intellectual architect of George W. Bush’s intervention in Iraq, takes a different view. He takes Obama’s view. The Journal reports: “Mr. Kristol, in a new editorial, strikes a markedly different tone. ‘It’s an unhealthy sign,’ he writes, ‘when American conservatives are so fearful of a popular awakening that they side with the dictator against the democrats. Rather, it’s a sign of fearfulness unworthy of Americans.’ “

One of my closest friends in politics, himself a hardened realist who disdains the radical impulses of the Arab street, nonetheless takes the side of Kristol — and Obama.

An unprompted e-mail from my pal showed up just as I was about to write a summation in defense of self-evident truths over self-evident interests. My friend put it better than I could.

“The more I think about it, the more I think this might need to happen. Every human being has God-given natural rights, and those rights cannot be repressed forever. It’s going to be messy, yes ...  But it wasn’t all puppy dogs and love songs in America once the framers signed that magical document in 1776. America went through some bad times on our road to universal suffrage, constitutional democracy, and a stable society.”

My friend sagely continues: “On balance democracy remains the last, best hope for humanity, and it has a much better record than dictatorship does. And that’s got me leaning toward casting my lot with the people in the streets rather than the unpopular despots hiding in high-walled compounds behind riot police.

“Maybe, just maybe, all these people are finally reaching for those inalienable freedoms our forefathers seized from our unelected colonial masters by force more than 200 years ago.”

I can’t help but agree. In the end, it will be up to the same protestors to decide the fate of that which is theirs.

But maybe, just maybe, indeed.

Josh Penry is the former Colorado Senate minority leader, and a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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