Friday, February 11, 2011

Cliché Time: Walk Like an Egyptian!

Mubarak is gone. The protestors have won this one: score one for non-violent revolt (and this was a successful revolt, not a revolution - revolution requires an upheaval of the social, legal, economic and political order, as far as we have seen, only the leadership in Egypt has been removed); score one for humanity.

It is important, in the wake of this victory, to take a look at the International Relations side of the events of the last two and a half weeks. People are questionning the fact that the White House showed support for Mubarak
right off the bat. The idea is that the unideological pragmatism of the American Executive's foreign policy is opportunism, that it is somehow mistaken and wrong.

The fact is, such analysis is blind to the very complex realities of long-term diplomatic relations within which all countries - the United States far more than others - must work. Such analysis forgets how much work it takes to convince foreign governments to undertake courses of action which help the American agenda forward.

The White House, has, in effect, been balancing the politics of placating the moral, ethical and ideological mood of its own electorate and the requirement that it maintain its international commitments. The maintenance of international commitments is important, not based only on principle, and certainly not based on whether or not there is a likelihood of a cause's success, but rather for a reason that is almost ridiculous in its simplicity: it is about keeping up appearances.

The projects of the American diplomacy are manifold. They include peace on the Korean peninsula, the halting of Iran's nuclear programme, the tightening of relations with Russia, the tightening of relations with China, etc. Many of these are interrelated. Peace in the Koreas, for example, can only happen with the consent of China and this can only happen if relations between the US and China are improved. Likewise the halting of Iran's nuclear programme can only happen if pressure on Iran is significantly increased, and that can only happen if China and Russia agree to impose economic and political sanctions on the country, which itself can only happen if... Well, you see the point.

These relationships - these interwoven networks of commitments and expectations - rely very heavily on countries doing and saying what they agree to do and say. The White House's initial support for Mubarak had very little to do with Israel. Far less than it had to do with the international perception of the USA's willingness to support its allies in times of crisis above and beyond the point where it blatantly serves its interests.

There was never any doubt that the administration would eventually come down on the side of protestors (as it did, yesterday); the last two and a half weeks have been about gradually changing position, so that it would not outpace events and so that foreign allies - especially dictatorships - could feel that they could continue to count on the political support of the United States. Could it have done so earlier? I would argue that, if not for an unfortunate statement by President Obama during the State of the Union about American support for the democratic aspirations of all peoples, the White House could very well have taken a concrete position well before last night. Additionally, there may have been slightly less urgent pressure from the domestic front to take position on the matter (ie, it may have been possible, without that statement, for the administration to handle this crisis through Secretary of State Clinton alone, rather than requiring the attention of the President himself).

That said, the administration has done a skillful job of navigating the International Relations entanglements of this crisis. It has done a skillful job of managing the domestic politics involved. It should be commended for its work in this matter, as the west can only gain from its handling of the situation.