Freedom for our friends and allies—and no one else

Demonstration in Cairo against President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-old regime; photo courtesy of Ron Rothbart via flickr.com

America is in danger. No, not from terrorism, economic collapse, or Glenn Beck—well, not only those things. We are also in danger of losing something. Something monumental. Something that we have claimed since our very founding.

As former President George W. Bush proclaimed just after 9/11, “America…[is] the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.”

Indeed, America has long prided itself as the “beacon of freedom” for the rest of the world. After all, not only do we guarantee freedom for our own citizens—we support freedom for all people around the world. Right?

Our political leaders would undoubtedly answer in the affirmative, but recent events in Egypt demand a different response. After all, what do we call a nation that annually delivers 1.5 billion dollars to a brutal dictatorship? What do we call a nation that then stands mute as that dictatorship beats, gases, and tortures peaceful protestors into submission? A beacon of freedom?

If so, that is one dimly lit beacon, perhaps never darker than in the past week, when our government offered a hypocrtical, slow-footed response to the unprecedented protests in Egypt. For almost a week, thousands of protestors have taken to the streets, demanding an end to dictatorship and freedom for all Egyptians.

Unfortunately, our government—beacon of freedom that it is—initially sat on its hands, refusing to break ties with the undemocratic Egyptian government.

Last week, Vice President Biden told PBS News that Mubarak should not go. Secretary of State Clinton called Mubarak’s government “stable.” Even when the Administration upped its criticism in the following days, no official went so far as to call for Mubarak’s resignation.

And why? Why does America—a nation that prides itself as the world’s beacon of freedom—give massive financial and political support to a corrupt dictatorship, even as that dictatorship’s victims demand freedom?

Because that dictatorship is friendly to our wishes, of course. After all, when we needed post-9/11 terrorism suspects “interrogated,” they were often sent to Egypt’s notorious torture factories. When we wanted to put an economic squeeze on the already-starved people of Gaza, Egypt happily sealed the eastern border with a giant wall. The Egyptian government, undemocratic and corrupt though it is, follows our wishes.

As Vice President Biden said on PBS, “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with, with Israel…”

The Egyptian public almost certainly opposes some of those policies. If allowed to vote in free and fair elections, the voters may choose a president who upends U.S. regional policy.

Thus, six presidential administrations have backed Hosni Mubarak, preferring a friendly dictator to an unfriendly democrat. This is nothing new. As the old realpolitik maxim goes, “He may be an SOB, but he’s our SOB.”

During the Cold War, we repeatedly supported dictatorial regimes, so long as they were anti-communist. We event went so far as to topple unfriendly, democratically elected leaders in places as disparate as Iran and Argentina.

The same hypocrisy continues today, mainly the Middle East. If you’re an Arab dictatorship and you’re willing to give us low oil prices, keep quiet about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and restrict domestic religious political movements, say hello to hundreds of millions in foreign aid money.

This policy has actually worked, keeping U.S.-friendly dictators in power across the Arab world for almost fifty years. But in 2011, the policy is finally crumbling. As we well know—being a beacon of freedom—you can only suppress a people for so long before they revolt. That is what the Tunisian people did. That is what the Egyptian people are doing.

America now has only two choices. One, we can continue to idle as the Egyptian government struggles to maintain its dictatorship. 

Two, we can live up to our “beacon of freedom rhetoric.” We immediately tell the Mubarak government that it will receive no political or financial support from us until it allows free, fair, internationally monitored elections. If the Egyptians want to elect liberals, secularists, religious fundamentalists, Communists, or anyone else, that’s their business. That’s democracy.

If the United States truly wants to be a beacon of freedom for the world, we must support freedom for everyone, not just the friendly.