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How Obama Can Truly Lead from Behind on Egypt

In January 2006, almost one year to the day after President George W. Bush stated in his second inaugural address that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world,” this quintessentially neoconservative “Freedom Agenda” got its first test, when the Palestinian Territories held U.S.-backed legislative elections. Hamas, an Islamist movement founded as an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, won, and the administration had egg on its face. “I’ve asked why nobody saw it coming,” Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said at the time. “It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse.” Then, as now, the U.S. refused to formally negotiate with Hamas. The message from the Bush administration: Democracy is good, except when it isn’t.

Now this same problem is repeated, with much larger stakes and under a new administration. Last year, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was democratically elected. They proceeded to govern ineffectually and undemocratically. The Egyptian people took to the streets, and two days ago the military, claiming to act in those people’s names, removed the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, including President Mohamed Morsi, and assumed power. The Obama administration has failed to call this coup a coup, which would automatically cut off financial aid to the country. Again: Democracy is good, except when it isn’t.

So was Egypt's democracy good or not? The Washington Post editorial page and New York Times columnist David Brooks today took opposing sides.

“There is no ambiguity about what happened in Egypt on Wednesday: A military coup against a democratically elected government and the wrong response to the country’s problems,” the Post declared. “The armed forces forcibly removed and arrested President Mohamed Morsi, who won 51 percent of the vote in a free and fair election little more than a year ago.” It called for the U.S. to suspend its $1.5 billion in aid until the military sets a clear path for (another?) democratic transition. This is a bold statement, given that this aid is widely seen as a linchpin of Israel’s security. But democracy, and making clear that the U.S. stands for democracy, is more important than such of-the-moment considerations, the Post insisted. It doesn’t deploy the omelettes and eggs metaphor, but it may as well have. The Post was articulating 2005-vintage Freedom Agenda. 

Brooks, meanwhile, was for the coup. “When you elect fanatics … you have not advanced democracy,” he wrote. “You have empowered people who are going to wind up subverting democracy. The important thing is to get people like that out of power, even if it takes a coup. The goal is to weaken political Islam, by nearly any means.” Many are focusing on the arguably ethnic connotations of Brooks’ assertion that Egypt lacks “even the basic mental ingredients” for democracy. More interesting, though, is that he quotes the realist American Interest—a magazine that traces its founding to a break within the neoconservative movement after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Brooks is articulating a more chastened worldview—the worldview of someone who saw what happened, say, in the Palestinian Territories when free elections were held there.

I think the Post is more right. The Freedom Agenda was never just a moral crusade—it had the strategic underpinning that democratic regimes are more stable regimes. While it was absurd to declare, as Bush did, “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one,” it isn’t a coincidence that America’s best friends tend to be democracies, and it isn’t a coincidence that the prominent areas of instability right now are in Egypt and Syria, each of which were “stably” ruled by autocrats as recently as two-and-a-half years ago.

Meanwhile, what is the appropriate liberal response? Like ten years ago, when the Iraq War’s most influential supporters and critics all seemed to be Republicans (with the rule-proving exception of the liberal hawks), in a time of national security crisis a right-leaning punditocracy seems to offer only its own solutions. It is the disastrousness of the right’s foreign adventures that have turned many liberals toward a kind of muted isolationism. (At The Nation, for example, the lead story, by Tom Hayden, seems to imply that it would be a lot easier for the U.S. to manage this if we didn’t want to maintain close ties with Israel—without considering that the U.S. may have good reason to want those ties and without mentioning that what just happened in Egypt was not motivated by Israel.) But taking an active role in the Egyptian crisis isn’t some equivalent of going abroad in search of monsters to destroy, it’s just sensibly and realistically exercising leadership because everybody expects us to, and because not doing so would embolden enemies across the world. 

Going forward, the Obama administration’s task will be to continue to promote democracy while identifying, and gingerly managing, those exceptions to the democracy-equals-stability rule. The problem with "leading from behind" is that the administration didn’t do it at first. In 2009, Obama told Cairo, “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other,” and made it clear that while he preferred democracy, he even more preferred not “imposing it” (he made that remark in the context of the Iraq War). That was less “leading from behind” than “abdicating.” It was superior to Bush’s Freedom Agenda in its humility about America’s ability to shape the world, but it was inferior in its tip-toeing around our values.

But actual leading from behind could have equal parts “leading” and “behind.” We could “lead” by making clear that we value democracy, even when non-democrats and arguably hostile governments are elected. And “behind” we could use the tools of diplomacy to put ourselves and our allies in more certain positions when democracy, as it inevitably does, winds up giving us unwelcome surprises. The administration may not have asked for an Egyptian “reset” like the one that just occurred, but it could use it to begin to promote both democratic rulers and democracy itself.