Stephen M. Walt

Friedman’s sermon

Friedman’s sermon

One of the nice things about being a superpower is you get to run around telling the rest of the world what to do. Other countries don’t always listen, of course, but once you’ve defined yourself as the "leader of the Free World," or the "indispensable nation," you’ve given yourself a license to preach. There’s no requirement to be consistent, of course: You can denounce an adversary’s human rights record while remaining studiously silent about an ally’s similar transgressions, just as you can tell other states not to even think about getting weapons of mass destruction while maintaining thousands of nuclear warheads yourself.  

This same tendency rubs off on American commentators (including, on occasion, yours truly), but none more than Tom Friedman of the New York Times. Today’s column offers some unsolicited advice to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, explaining why it was a huge mistake for Morsy to visit Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement meeting, on the heels of a visit to (horrors!) China. I agree with some of Friedman’s points (such as the importance of reassuring potential investors and tourists that Egypt is stable and a good destination for capital or your next vacation), but what I question is the idea that Friedman has a better sense of Morsy’s political needs and strategic objectives than Morsy himself does.

For starters, Friedman misunderstands Tehran’s motivation in seeking to head the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). He tells Morsy that Iran’s "only goal" in having all these world leaders attend the meeting is "to signal to Iran’s people that the world approves of their country’s clerical leadership and therefore they should never, ever, ever again think about launching a democracy movement." Here Friedman is mostly trying to shame Morsy, by accusing him of giving succor to a regime that opposes the sort of democracy Morsy is trying to build in Egypt.

In fact, Tehran’s main goal in hosting the NAM isn’t to enhance its domestic legitimacy — I suspect most Iranians don’t care about the NAM one way or the other. Rather, the goal is to demonstrate that Iran is not as isolated as Washington would like it to be. The Non-Aligned Movement doesn’t have the symbolic clout that it possessed during the heyday of the Cold War, but it is still a prominent forum for the so-called global South. By hosting the meeting and taking over the rotating chairmanship, Tehran is reminding its adversaries that it is not a pariah state. It is also sending the not-so-subtle reminder that a lot of countries would regard an unprovoked attack on it as an illegitimate act of aggression.

Second, Friedman misses what’s really driving Morsy. The Egyptian leader is not anti-American; he’s just not the same sort of tame client that Hosni Mubarak was. Recall that one of the key themes of the Egyptian revolution was the desire to restore a sense of "dignity," both with respect to how individual Egyptians were treated but also with respect to Egypt’s posture vis-à-vis the United States and other states. As I read it, Morsy is working to rebuild Egypt’s ties in several directions, in order to maximize Egypt’s freedom of movement and diplomatic options. Not only will this enhance Egypt’s regional clout, it will encourage others to do more to keep Cairo happy. This approach is also likely to be popular with a lot of Egyptians, who weren’t wild about their country being a supine patsy of the United States.

For Morsy, therefore, visiting Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement is a perfect opportunity, because he can rightly argue that he’s there as part of a broad global movement that just happens to be meeting in Iran and that he’s not endorsing Iran’s leadership per se. This is basically the same line that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has used to justify his own attendance, by the way. Similarly, visiting Beijing might bring Egypt some tangible benefits and reminds the United States not to take Cairo for granted.

The bottom line: Friedman is just angry that Morsy wasn’t willing to stick it to Tehran on behalf of Washington’s regional agenda, even if doing so wasn’t really in Egypt’s interest. I like democracy as much as anyone, but if we can overlook it when our strategic interests dictate otherwise (see under: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia), why can’t President Morsy pay a brief visit to Tehran without being lectured by Mr. Friedman?