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Opinion: No. Our realism must be realistic.
There is a fourth mistake, which is not limited to neoconservatives. It is senseless to say that America had anything to do with the Egyptian popular uprising and the departure of Hosni Mubarak. It was a purely Egyptian decision, inspired by Tunis, but made in Cairo, in Alexandria, and in Port Said.
Promoting American interests has to be the first priority of foreign policy, but there is a need to be realistic about realism. We have to live in the world as it is, not as we would wish it, and we can work with regimes that are not perfectly attuned to our ideals. But democracy and human rights are, more often than not, in the service of American interests. If it is a mistake to force democracy on others, so is it a mistake to discourage it.
During the long years of the Cold War we dealt with the Soviet bureaucracy to lessen tensions where we could, and reach understandings to protect us from nuclear war. But at the same time our ideals, student exchanges, our music and our culture was undermining the tyranny the Soviet system represented.
America wasn’t wrong to back Hosni Mubarak back in 1981, when he took over after Anwar Sadat’s assassination and promised to keep the peace with Israel. But we also should have done more in later years when the Egyptian regime became unresponsive to the will of the people, thereby threatening the long-term stability we sought. But that would have been a long-term process of persuasion and example, not by ultimatums and public gestures.
It is a mistake to think, however, that America’s finger on the scales, one way or the other, would have been the deciding factor. The events in Cairo have been an Egyptian show, and what follows will be an Egyptian solution.
Thus I would argue that America was right to back Mubarak after the assassination of Anwar Sadat, at the hands of Muslim extremists. The Muslim Brotherhood may have softened today, but that was not always the case when they made a bid for power. We could have done more to urge Mubarak to loosen up his regime, lessen repression when it was timely to do so, and to allow more voices to be heard. That, too, is realism.
But it would be a mistake to think that America’s finger on the scales, one way or the other, was, or would have been, the deciding factor. The deciding factor was the Egyptian people.