Standing up for democracy while standing by friends and allies who are less than democratic is one of the great tests of American statecraft. Regrettably, it’s a test the current administration is failing. In fact, it sometimes seems more dangerous to be Washington’s friend than its foe, as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak learned in 2011, Mubarak’s successor Mohamed Morsi learned last month and Morsi’s successor Abdel Sisi is learning today.
President Ronald Reagan offered an example of how America can stay true to its friends and its ideals. It all begins with having a set of core beliefs to guide U.S. foreign policy.
What Reagan’s example teaches his successors is that the best way—perhaps the only way—to balance American interests and American ideals is to keep an eye on the big picture. For Reagan, the big picture was defeating the Soviet Empire—America’s main enemy after World War II.
Operating from that framework, Reagan backed pro-democracy and anti-communist movements (the two were not always one in the same) in Poland and Eastern Europe, Afghanistan and Africa, El Salvador and Nicaragua. All the while, Reagan supported partners like Turkey and Spain as they struggled through difficult transitions to democracy. He stood by South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, even though they were less than democratic, recognizing that the alternative was worse. And as the tide of free government swept over the Philippines, Reagan showed how to stand by a friend and stand for freedom.
When Corazaon Aquino defeated America’s longtime anti-communist bulwark Ferdinand Marcos at the ballot box, Reagan appealed to Marcos to accept the results and refrain from using force to stay in power—and then provided America’s old friend a dignified way out. “I wanted to make sure we did not treat Marcos as shabbily as our country had treated another former ally, the shah of Iran,” Reagan later recalled. Reagan’s solution: a one-way ticket to Hawaii.
For Obama, the big picture should be defeating jihadism—America’s main enemy since 9/11—keeping in mind that old maxim, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
To be sure, this might create moral mismatches from time to time, just as it did during the Cold War, but U.S. presidents have to weigh these against the alternatives. “Our historic desire for all men and women to share in our tradition of individual human rights and freedoms,” as Reagan said in critiquing President Jimmy Carter’s idealistic foreign policy, “should continue to guide us. Yet it must be tempered by the reality that other powers with which we must deal simply do not and probably never will agree with our concept of constitutional republicanism, let alone human rights.”
Reagan recognized that basing U.S. foreign policy solely on issues of human rights creates “problems that are both balky and contradictory.”
That explains why Vice President Joe Biden and then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton reacted the way they did when the Arab Spring slammed into Egypt in early 2011. Biden called Mubarak an “ally” and said, “I would not refer to him as a dictator.” Clinton described Mubarak as “a partner in trying to stabilize a region that is subject to a lot of challenges.” Under a headline Reagan would have appreciated—“Clinton Calls for Democracy in Egypt, but not Mubarak’s Ouster”—The Washington Post reported that Clinton was worried about what would come after Mubarak, expressing concerns about “a so-called democracy that leads to what we’ve seen in Iran” and warning that revolutions can be “hijacked by new autocrats.”
In short, Biden and Clinton were speaking the language of principled pragmatism—something Reagan would have well understood.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether the Obama administration should have remained pragmatic or turned to a more idealistic approach to Egypt.
Following an idealistic playbook would have obliged Obama to support the democrats and oppose the autocrats, based on the notion that democracy is always in America’s interests—even when democracy ushers in instability. The principled pragmatists counter that American interests are more important than American ideals—and that when the two diverge, it’s a president’s responsibility to follow the course that serves American interests. A pragmatic approach to Egypt would have obliged Obama to support Mubarak because Mubarak was a moderating influence in the Arab world and a bulwark of stability and dependability—keeping peace with Israel, keeping the Suez open to U.S. warships, keeping extremist elements like the Muslim Brotherhood at bay, and keeping problem states like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the mullahs’ Iran on the margins of Mideast politics.
While a case can be made that either playbook would have been effective in guiding the Obama administration through Egypt’s revolution, what proved totally ineffective was the schizophrenic policy Obama chose—a policy that neither bolstered America’s friends nor undermined America’s enemies, a policy that failed to balance American interests and American ideals, a policy that ignored the big picture and left friend and foe uncertain about where America stood.
It pays to recall that Obama initially praised Mubarak as “very helpful on a range of tough issues in the Middle East” and asked the Mubarak government “to be careful about not resorting to violence.” As The Washington Post concluded at the end of January 2011, the overall message from the administration was that “democracy and human rights in Egypt was not a top priority. When given the opportunity to use the biggest megaphone in the world—the voice of the president of the United States—the words were whispered, if said at all.”
Obama, it seemed, had chosen the path of principled pragmatism.But just 14 days after his initial remarks praising Mubarak for standing with the United States, Obama pulled the rug out from under Washington’s man in Cairo, demanding that Mubarak “put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy.” A week later, the president bluntly called on Mubarak “to step down immediately.”
Obama had abandoned principled pragmatism, sending a worrisome signal to allies in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan that perhaps they would not be able to count on Washington when times got tough.
For the next several months, Obama supported Egypt’s post-Mubarak democratic experiment, even as Egypt’s new leaders trampled on minority rights, rammed through an illiberal constitution and carried out policies that destabilized Egypt’s neighborhood. The post-Mubarak government detained representatives from U.S. non-government organizations, failed to provide security outside the U.S. embassy, allowed the Sinai to become a nest for jihadists and hosted Iran’s head of state—the first such visit since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Through it all, Obama stuck with the democratically elected Morsi.
But then, Egypt’s once-fractured opposition came together, united by just one thing: they all loathed the Morsi regime. They rallied in the streets by the millions and demanded Morsi’s resignation. Gen. Sisi gave Morsi an ultimatum to set a date for early elections or be ousted. When Morsi refused, his fate was sealed.
Obama—turning back into a pragmatist—refused to call the military coup a coup. Even as the military crushed Morsi’s party and targeted Morsi’s political base, Secretary of State John Kerry said Gen. Sisi was “restoring democracy.” Not only was it Orwellian to call the military ouster of a democratically elected government an act of “restoring democracy”; the Egyptian military’s action against Morsi and his party virtually assured that the Brotherhood would reject the political process going forward and would instead deal exclusively in terrorism and radicalism.
Two years earlier, Obama warned Mubarak’s generals to avoid “repression or brutality.” But when the army removed Morsi last month, all that Obama mustered was a statement that “No transition to democracy comes without difficulty.”
Gen. Sisi couldn’t have asked for a greener light.
Only after hundreds were killed by Gen. Sisi’s troops did Obama condemn “the dangerous path taken through arbitrary arrests, a broad crackdown on Mr. Morsi’s associations and supporters, and now tragically the violence that’s taken the lives of hundreds of people.” He then canceled the biannual U.S.-Egypt war games known as Bright Star—but not the $1.5 billion annual aid package that equips Gen. Sisi’s troops with American helicopters, planes and tanks he used to crush a deeply flawed but democratically elected government.
In short, it would have been perfectly sensible for Obama, on pragmatic grounds, to have stuck with Mubarak in 2011 and to back Gen. Sisi today. Mubarak and the general are, after all, the enemies of our enemy. Likewise, it would have been understandable if Obama, on idealist grounds, had sided with the liberals from the outset and opposed the military coup today. And it would have been honorable to find a way to stand by our friend Mubarak and stand for our enduring commitment to the spread of democracy, as Reagan did in the Philippines.
But Obama did none of these. Instead, at each juncture, Obama seemed to do the very opposite of what would have either served American interests or burnished American ideals.
Regrettably, Egypt is not an isolated case.
In 2008, Obama asked, “Will we stand for the human rights of…the blogger in Iran?” The answer came just a year later, when he averted his gaze as the mullahs crushed Iran’s Twitter Revolution.
He drew “red lines” and dusted off the “never again” trope in Syria, but when Damascus crossed those lines the consequences came too late to make a difference and were too limited to exact any real punishment.
The reason for the president’s vacillating foreign policy is that he has never defined the core of his foreign policy. That “big picture” which guided Reagan and other successful foreign-policy presidents seems to elude Obama.
As Reagan explained, “A leader, once convinced a particular course of action is the right one, must have the determination to stick with it and be undaunted when the going gets tough.”
Obama still has time to discover and define his foreign-policy core. A good place to start would be to read up on Reagan.