- By Paul D. MillerPaul D. Miller is the associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He previously served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
When drama fills the headlines, reason deserts the pundits. Here are just a few thoughts:
1. Egypt says nothing about Obama. The United States had no control over events in Egypt. It is silly to proclaim that events in Egypt proved Obama either feckless or brilliant in his foreign policy. All he could do is watch, make carefully-moderated public statements, and place a few private phone calls. Making that a test of his foreign policy acumen is like judging the Super Bowl by the coin toss. Obama’s foreign policy mettle is tested on issues in which he actually has a role to play, like the war in Afghanistan.
2. If Obama gets any credit, so does Bush. Obama rightly sided (albeit cautiously) with the protesters. His pro-democracy rhetoric would have been stupendously hypocritical and opportunistic if George W. Bush hadn’t given Obama legs to stand on. Bush reversed decades of U.S. foreign policy by publicly criticizing Egypt and Saudi Arabia for their political oppression. Obama sounded more plausible as a result when he threw Mubarak under the bus and reached out a hand to the protesters.
3. Despite the basic goodness of people rallying against autocracy and corruption, their movement won’t seamlessly usher in a golden age of good governance. Recent pro-democracy movements across the developing world are largely discouraging about the long-term effects of such popular outbursts.
- The Georgian government never succeeded in exercising full control over its territory after the 2003 Rose Revolution. Disputes with breakaway regions helped trigged the 2008 war with Russia, which hobbled Georgian sovereignty.
- Six years after the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine toppled Viktor Yanukovych for corruption and fraud, Ukrainians reelected him.
- The 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon created an ephemeral sense of national unity that vanished in 2007. The national assembly couldn’t agree on a President, the office went vacant, violence erupted in Beirut, and the country veered towards civil war. A national unity government was patched together in 2008. It collapsed last month.
- The 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan installed Kurmanbek Bakiyev as President on a platform of reform and clean government. Bakiyev was as bad as his predecessor. He faced down violent protests in 2007, rigged his reelection in 2009, and finally caved to more protests and violence when he fled the country in 2010.
4. Be careful what you ask for. Every day I expected The Onion to run the headline, "Egyptians Demand Military Rule," because that, for now, is exactly what they have got. Democracy is possible, contrary to cultural determinists who think Arabs are barred by the laws of history from self-government — but neither is it inevitable, or even particularly easy. The eventual emergence of good government and democratic elections would be a better test of Obama’s handling of Egypt than parsing his utterances of the last month.
5. No one knows how the Muslim Brotherhood will react, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Elections have a track record of blunting the hard edge of some revolutionary, illiberal movements (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), and empowering others (the Nazis). The Brotherhood’s greater freedom of action in the post-Mubarak Egypt is something to watch closely. The Brotherhood’s choices in the coming months and years will be more important to Egypt and the Middle East than the toppling of one autocrat. They may be a bellwether for political Islamist movements across the world.
6. James Clapper should resign.