The Egyptian Parliament re-opened this week with the Muslim Brotherhood in charge and the Salafists in second place. Googling liberals were far behind. It is not surprising as the vast majority of Egyptians are rural, poor, and religious, but since majority rule should never be confused with democracy, the Obama administration is in a tight spot.
The U.S. wants western-style capitalism and free markets in a country that looks and acts like ours. The State Department appears to believe it is America’s job to tell the Brotherhood what it wants and what it expects.
Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Deputy Secretary of State William Burns’ meeting with the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi was, “an opportunity to reinforce U.S. expectations that Egypt’s new government will support human rights, women’s rights and religious tolerance and support Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.” CNN reported that Burns’ message was, “We want to work with your government. We want a meaningful partnership that fully accepts your government and we want to work with you on your primary goal, which is economic development as long as we feel you are building a democracy that respects human rights and freedom and supports regional peace.”
Mr. Burns may believe that economic development should be the Brotherhood’s “primary goal,” and national survival may bring it to the top of the list right now, but the Muslim Brotherhood stands for the establishment of an Islamic society based on its understanding of God’s requirements for man. Mr. Burns is likely to be disappointed when those requirements don’t include universalized “human rights and freedom” or “regional peace” for Israel.
In Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Iran, not to mention Hezbollah and Hamas, the best organized groups are in political ascendance—and they are also the ones who deeply reject American political, moral, and social standards. They believe in an international Islamist revival, and it underestimates them to assume they are closet capitalists and free-thinkers.
We cannot demand and should not expect, but the United States has had experience dealing rationally with countries whose systems of government do not include democratic norms and principles, placing ourselves on the side of the people and ensuring that both the rulers and the dissidents know where we stand.
We’ve done the Cold War.
After decades of ignoring Soviet depredations against their own people, and an uncomfortable experience as wartime allies, the occupation of Central Europe made it impossible to accept the Soviet system as compatible with our own. Certainly we recognized the Soviet Union, talked to it, negotiated with it, traded in some measure with it, and generally tried to avoid war with it. But we also generally did our best to defend against it, restrict it, deny it victories, and keep faith with its people.
Our diplomats knew the names of dissidents and prisoners, and they asked about them in Moscow—and Secretary of State George Shultz’s 1987 Moscow Seder was an extraordinary moment for the West. We had trade restrictions, the Helsinki process, COCOM, and Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe to tell prisoners of communism the news of the West and the news of their own countries. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the dissidents said, “We knew you were there; we knew you were on our side.”
That is a huge point. During the Cold War, we were good at the distinction between the people and their government. We didn’t expect the Soviet government to be like us, but only to know that we were watching and their choices would cost them.
Our Western heritage—not so much electoral politics, but free speech, rule of law, free market economics, independent judiciaries, property rights, and tolerance—is, in fact, responsive to the economic and social conditions confronted by people across the Middle East and North Africa. But while the U.S. demands that Egypt and others be “democratic” and tolerant, we pay only lip service to the universal benefits of Western Civilization, primarily by supporting the winners of referendums masquerading as elections.
Victorious Islamist governments are unlikely to listen to the message of the West, but many people in the region want us and need us. If we don’t see the active assertion of our values as part of our policy, future generations in the Arab world will fall farther and farther behind economically and socially.
The West is in a difficult twilight period with the Middle Eastern Arab world plus Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; not so much a “long war” as a “cold war.” There are no military answers or easy “soft” answers, but scholar and author Robert Kaplan drew up a concise set of priorities for our government to manage as we go forward:
1. Regime type matters. Authoritarian regimes, including Russia and China, face uprisings and should not be considered stable partners. To the extent that they permit joint economic activity within the rule of law, we can work with them for the benefit of their people.
2. Military matters. American influence in the world is proportional to our ability to protect our interests. As we plan to draw down in the Middle East and “pivot” toward Asia, we have to ensure that we have sufficient resources for defense.
3. Europe matters. Despite their current economic problems and ours, they are the “go to” ally. China doesn’t appear to want the responsibilities that go with economic clout, nor does India. Brazil and Turkey have not been helpful, and their longevity as rising economic powers is unclear, and finally,
4. America matters. No one else is us. Unless we abdicate our leadership, we can exercise it. And we should.