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The arsenal of democracy?

Elie Elian | Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The propagation of Democracy has been the driving force of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War I with Woodrow Wilson’s calls for national self-determination around the world. In the past 10 years alone we have toppled regimes and governments in Afghanistan and Iraq and have replaced them with democracies. George Bush stated, “[We] are committed to a strategic goal of a free Iraq that is democratic, that can govern itself, defend itself and sustain itself.” The promotion of democracies has been significant to most modern presidents and has been part of the justification for the sacrifice of American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite this apparently pro-democratic foreign policy, the Obama administration has failed to promote democratic movements in Egypt and has been embarrassingly ambivalent, infusing the crises with political rhetoric. Is this a departure from America’s promotion of democracy, or are these policies simply political rhetoric?

In the past few days we have seen the collapse of two autocratic nations, Tunisia and Egypt. With such passion and drive, the people of Tunisia and Egypt braved walls of riot police and tear gas in the hopes of tasting the freedom that we take for granted. In the face of a populist uprising, in the name of democracy, Americans might have expected their government to stand firmly behind this movement. One obvious reason for such an expectation would be our nation’s experience and values. The government that we swear allegiance to is a government from the people for the people as a result of a populist rebellion in the face of oppression.

Despite such obvious reasons, our government was and is ambivalent about the uprising in Egypt. The Obama administration has stated that it supports economic and political reforms and does not believe the status quo in Egypt is sustainable. However, it is not calling for the “president” of Egypt to step down, nor has it lauded the Egyptian people’s desire for democracy. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton stated, “We are not advocating any specific outcome.” Such weak and indecisive rhetoric is intentional and reflects the political realities of the situation. Hosni Mubarak, the “president” of Egypt, is a very close political ally of the U.S. The US Agency for International Development reports that during Mubarak’s reign, Egypt has been the recipient of $28 billion from the United States. During this time the international community did not consider Egypt to be a valid democracy.

The close political ties between the United States and Mubarak may explain some of the administration’s ambivalence, but Obama’s administration fears something worse than the loss of an ally. They fear replacing that ally with an enemy. If a democracy takes hold in Egypt it may empower radical elements of the population that were suppressed during Mubarak’s regime, elements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamic political movement that has been actively suppressed under Mubarak. The Brotherhood is not considered an ally by the U.S. and has been linked to violent attacks primarily in Egypt. While not considered a terrorist group there are many who fear the result of the group attaining political power in Egypt. Yet how does the administration’s ambivalence coincide with the long affirmed democracy promoting foreign policy?

The result of the uprising in Egypt has outlined the political rhetoric and half-hearted values that have plagued this policy. We find it necessary to impose democracy with force, but find it concerning when democracy arises from the people. We find it appropriate to sacrifice the lives of our troops in the name of democracy and freedom, but also find it appropriate to remain ambivalent while men, women, and children rise against oppression. While the fears of extremism are justified, do such fears justify oppression? Our founders feared the powers of “factions” hijacking the government and abusing its power. As a result, they did not advocate autocracy, they advocated a power sharing system within government to check power. If we are to be “the great arsenal of democracy” as FDR called us, we mustn’t shy away from those who cry out for freedom. We mustn’t embrace those who stomp on the values dear to our democracy. We cannot continue to claim that we are the “arsenal” of democracy if we do not inherently support the ideal. What we must do is stand for the values that embody our nation. We must be brave enough to support democracy even if the result is not in our favor. We should do this not because it is political good for us to do it, but because it is simply right. The foreign policy of this administration and many before it, did not fight to promote democracy, they fought to promote a conditional democracy. We did not fight for the idea of democracy and the value of freedom; we fought for political ambitions. This has become apparent today in regards to Egypt. To many Egyptians we have been flying the banner of democracy and freedom with vigor and determination in Iraq and Afghanistan. When they try to do they same, we do not hoist the banner higher, we ask them to stop. Therefore, we must make a choice. Either, we must hold the values of freedom and democracy high unconditionally to all nations, or we must stop justifying war and the deaths of our soldiers in its name.

Elie Elian is a sophomore political science and Arabic double major and has lived 11 years in Beirut, Lebanon. You can contact him at eelian@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.