Friday, February 4, 2011

White House Chief of Staff: No Leverage Over Egypt


I found this Washington Post article, which covers many of the same issues we discussed in our debate last night. I asserted that the U.S. had very little leverage over Egypt, which several of you disagreed with. This article quotes Bill Daley, the White House Chief of Staff, as saying "We don't control this. And even though we like to think at times that we can control everything in the world...it truly is not up to us." Most dictators ally with the U.S. because it is in their best interests. One of the main problems with supporting dictators therefore, is that they will almost always place their personal interests ahead of the U.S.'s. This phenomenon can be seen in Pakistan, Iraq and, now, Egypt. The U.S. foreign policy of unconditionally supporting friendly Dictators has failed. It is time we shift our support to democratic movements.

16 comments:

Lachlan said...

I wonder what you think, Ian, of supporting democratic movements/regimes that rule in ways that are virulently anti-democratic (e.g. Hamas, Hugo Chavez)? If democracy is just a means of instituting and legitimizing authoritarianism, aren't we better off - and aren't the people in countries ruled by these regimes better off - if we support a dictator who doesn't, say, hang gay people or violently suppress the rights of women and minorities?

If the Muslim Brotherhood manages to wrest control in Cairo, Egypt will stray towards theocracy. Even if the Brotherhood is granted democratic legitimacy, are the Egyptian people better off under a government run by religious fanatics of their choosing than one run by a thuggish dictator?

I honestly don't know the answer to that, but I would warn against bestowing rhetorical legitimacy upon a regime just because it came to power through free and fair elections.

As someone whose name escapes me once said, "democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner."

Ian Thresher said...

You raise several very good points, and we talked about these same issues in our debate last night. It seems that you are arguing for the so-called “realist” strategy, a strategy that, as I said, we have espoused throughout the 20th and 21st centuries with poor results. I understand the point you are trying to make about Chavez and Hamas, but I disagree with your assessment that the people are somehow worse off than if an American backed dictator presided over them. After all, Mubarek’s police officers can and do torture people, take bribes, hold opposition leaders indefinitely and outlaw other political parties. I think that you vastly overstate the dangers and powers of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that is committed to non-violence. It is important to remember that the protests were not motivated by Islam, they were motivated by the poor economy, lack of opportunity, and frustration with government corruption. Additionally, there is a big difference between genuine, multi-party democracy, and one party rule. Just because people vote does not necessarily make a country democratic (keep in mind that Egypt is, theoretically, a Republic.) I recognize that democracies are messy, Egypt and France are evidence of this, but I firmly believe that democracy leads to stability. When young men have the power to choose their governments, they will be far less likely to see America as some sort of master manipulator. We will not be able to control every action a nation like Egypt takes, but in the long run stability through democracy will pay off economically, diplomatically and militarily.

Lachlan said...

Sorry for the delayed response. A few points I'd make.

First, I'm not arguing for a specific brand of American foreign policy. I don't think that the United States always acts in ways that increase its relative power over other nations - the central tenet of realism as I understand it.

In fact, putting aside discussion of American interests, opposition to free and fair elections can be far more in line with American values than a blind support of them. Suppose, for instance, that a majority in a given country have consistently espoused a desire to wipe out some religious or ethnic minority, and have the means to do so. The Secretary of State tells the president that if this majority comes to power, as it will through free elections given that it is a majority, it will violently suppress and persecute that minority. Is the president not fully in line with American values if he opposes democratic elections - and the French Revolution-style bloodbath that, he is told, will inevitably ensue? My point is simply that democracy is not an end in itself, and, like any other form of government, can be viciously hostile to values and institutions that in the United States are considered "democratic."

As for Egypt, sure the Muslim Brotherhood has claimed it is committed to nonviolence. But that is mostly a pragmatic position, borne of the recognition that violence is not always (rarely, in fact) the best way to go about imposing Islam as the supreme religious, political, and cultural law of the land (the Brotherhood's stated goal). The group spawned Hamas, a vicious terrorist organization, has lionized Osama bin Laden as a "Mujahid," high praise in the Arab world, and has condoned the murder of American soldiers and contractors in Iraq. But endorsements of violence aside, the Brotherhood is far more concerned with political objectives than with murder for its own sake, which is exactly why it has ostensibly renounced violence. My concern is not with terrorist violence, necessarily, but with a group that, given the chance, will govern strictly according to the political and legal dictates of the Koran - which are, by the way, wholly undemocratic in the sense described above. The Brotherhood's vision of government subjugates women, executes apostates and homosexuals, and sees non-Muslims as second-class citizens.

So it is entirely in line with American values to oppose any system, democratic or not, that brings the Brotherhood to power and thereby promotes its thoroughly undemocratic brand of government.

Lachlan said...

By the way, here's the Muslim Brotherhood in its own words (emphasis added):

"We want a Muslim individual, a Muslim home, a Muslim people, a Muslim government and state that will lead the Islamic countries and bring into the fold the Muslim diaspora and the lands robbed from Islam and will then bear the standard of jihad and the call [da'wah] to Allah. [Then the] world will happily accept the precepts of Islam....The problems of conquering the world will only end when the flag of Islam waves and jihad has been proclaimed.

"The goal is to establish one Islamic state of united Islamic countries, one nation under one leadership whose mission will be to reinforce adherence to the law of Allah...and the strengthening of the Islamic presence in the world arena....The goal...is the establishment of a world Islamic state.

"And if prayer is a pillar of the faith, then jihad is its summit...and death in the path of Allah is the summit of aspiration."


All of that is to say: the Brotherhood and Al Qaeda have the exact same objectives - a global Islamic Caliphate governed according to the dictates of political Islam. They just differ on the preferred means of getting there.

Ian Thresher said...

Due to character constraints, I am breaking my response into three parts. You make several thought-provoking arguments, but I think that each of them has a more persuasive counter-argument. You present a scenario in which a majority comes to power through democratic elections and vows to persecute a minority of its citizens. This does, at first, appear to show that democracy can bring about a scenario that is not in line with American interests/ideals. The U.S., in my view, should oppose the party, but it should never oppose democratic elections. If the elections were free and fair as you suggest, then there would logically be some sort of opposition party, probably supported by the soon-to-be-persecuted minority. In the event that the majority is somehow able to pass a law over the strenuous objections of the minority (no small feat if we suppose the democracy is anything like our own) and draft a persecution bill that somehow passed as constitutional (something I refuse to believe would ever happen in a true democracy), the U.S. should still steadfastly support democracy in this country. For one, the U.S. should not go against the political will of the people, for both ideological and pragmatic reasons. Ideologically, the right of a people to be independent and elect their own government is perhaps the highest American ideal. Pragmatically, forcing citizens of a different country to accept an American approved dictator/government is almost impossible and merely serves to further promote hatred of the U.S. and embitterment towards the established institution. I do not think that the U.S. should remain passive though. In the event that persecution was being committed by a democratically elected ruling party, I would hope that the entire international community would bring enormous sanctions, offer sanctuary to the oppressed minority, and otherwise make the offending party so unpopular that they would be thrown out of office. I admit that it is an extraordinarily tricky scenario, but offenses committed by a democratically elected government are fundamentally different from offenses committed by a dictator, especially one who is propped up by the U.S. government. There are no winners in your scenario, but using democracy to solve the problem, not military action or American intervention, is the next best thing.

Ian Thresher said...

As for the Muslim Brotherhood, it is my understanding that the Muslim Brotherhood condemned the 9/11 terrorist attacks and denounced al-Qaeda. Regardless, there are plenty of political groups in the U.S. and in European countries who favor different, but equally radical approaches to government. Besides, it is not as if their approach would somehow be “new.” Saudi Arabia has very similar religious laws, yet no one seems to be overly concerned about them. Additionally, Iowa just voted to ban civil unions and it is not as though women enjoy full equality in this country either. If the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power through democratic elections, it is fully within their rights to pursue their own agenda. I think you are misunderstanding and exaggerating the power of the majority party relative to the minority parties. It would be almost impossible to get such extreme measures passed if Egypt had an American-style Republic and just as impossible if they had an English-style Parliamentary system as they would have to make concessions to the other parties.

Ian Thresher said...

Even if democracy can result in unfavorable results, America should always support it, if not the parties involved. Fundamentally, American values are values bred by democracy. While there is always the risk that a majority could tyrannize the minority (an issue that the framers wrestled with), this risk is mitigated by party plurality and checks on power. In the event that it does occur, I, ultimately, think that self-governance and the right of the people to establish and abolish their government is the most important of human rights and should never be infringed. Even if a dictator rose to power and gave everyone equal rights and everyone agreed that the country was perfect, I would still support a democratic revolution. If the country was perfect under the dictator, there is no reason for the people to elect leaders who would change the status quo. A true Democracy is an end in itself because it gives people the power to shape their rights and their lives. I realize that there are times when a democratically elected party could theoretically put constraints on other rights, like liberty and equality, but so could a dictator or a monarch or an aristocracy or an oligarchy. Democracy possesses inherent flaws, but at least it is up to the people to correct those flaws.

Lachlan said...

(1/2) Thanks for responding, Ian, but you misrepresent my argument in a number of instances.

First, you misunderstand American values if you believe that they place ultimate authority in democratic rule. The United States is not a democracy, it is a constitutional republic, and consequently the rights of the ultimate minority - the individual - are sacrosanct, and protected from infringement even by the will of a majority. You hint at this element of the American ideal in your third comment, but your claim that democratic elections represent "perhaps the highest American ideal" ignores that they are often a means of violating individual rights, which form the bedrock of our republican (small R), not democratic (small D), system of government.

You seem to think that I support the imposition of American-backed despots. Nothing could be further from the truth. I agree that doing so is both pragmatically and ideologically problematic (though there may be times, during wartime for instance, in which immediate objectives with potentially-existential implications have to trump those concerns).

You'll notice I did not mention Hosni Mubarak once. I think he's a thug dictator with no legitimate claim to his post. My point was not that the U.S. should continue to back Mubarak, but simply that a blind support for democratic elections is not smart foreign policy when dealing with nations where significant popular support is afforded political forces that openly call for the destruction of liberal democracy and the imposition of some brand of authoritarianism (theocracy, in Egypt's case).

You seem to assume that there would inevitably be institutional checks on democratic power in any hypothetical state. The risk of a majoritarian tyranny, you write, "is mitigated by party plurality and checks on power." Unfortunately, the vast majority of the world's nations, even democratic ones, don't have meaningful checks on central authority. Even the British parliamentary model allows the legislature near-free reign to govern (the minority may try to obstruct, but without a large enough coalition, can do nothing to stop majority rule). So reality will almost invariably look far different from the hypothetical you've devised.

Those institutional constraints on majority rule in the United States are exactly why we have so little to fear from groups that, you rightly note, espouse similar brands of religious fanaticism to that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Even if those groups enjoyed a level of popular support remotely comparable to the Brotherhood's, they would be unable to implement their oppressive vision of government through the political process because they would be constrained by the individualist brand of rights we enjoy.

Not the case in Egypt. They do not have the legal protections Americans do, and hence are not protected from violations of their rights by even a democratically elected regime.

Lachlan said...

(2/2) You write: "I realize that there are times when a democratically elected party could theoretically put constraints on other rights, like liberty and equality, but so could a dictator or a monarch or an aristocracy or an oligarchy."

EXACTLY! Every government, no matter how its leaders are determined, is capable of violating the rights of its citizens. That includes a democracy. So while the United States considers democratic elections a cornerstone of our political system, the American ideal, again, is an individualist one, not a collectivst one. Rights are enjoyed on the individual level, and no right to democratic rule can trump the legal protections afforded the individual.

You write: "A true Democracy is an end in itself because it gives people the power to shape their rights and their lives." Yes, it gives people the power to shape their own rights - and the rights of everyone else. And if rights are subject to the approval of the state (again, regardless of its form), they are not rights, they are privileges afforded by the politically powerful (the majority, the clergy, the king, whomever). A person whose rights depend on the approval of the government has no rights in any meaningful sense of the term (certainly in the American sense of the term).

Since Egypt does not have the legal constraints on state action that the United States does, there is no institutional restriction against majoritarian tyranny. If the ruling majority decides women can no longer drive, women no longer drive. If it decides non-Muslims must pay a Jizya, they pay the Jizya. And so on - the American ideal of spheres of private conduct immune from any government intervention is wholly absent, and hence even a democratically-elected government can act in ways wholly contrary to the American ideal of individual rights.

And remember, condemnations of violence notwithstanding, the Brotherhood is a group that is quite open about its desire to destroy the Western conception of liberal democracy and to institute total theocratic rule. That is not just a thoroughly un-democratic system of government, it's a thoroughly un-American one. It doesn't just establish a state religion, it governs according to that religion's 7th Century political diktats.

So once you realize that the American ideal stresses individual, not collective rights; that we have institutionalized those rights while most of the world, including Egypt, has not; that a failure to institutionalize those rights inevitably subjects the individual and minority to the political whims of the majority; and that in Egypt and many other countries that could very well mean a thoroughly un-American (as distinct from anti-American) form of government despite its democratic path to power, it should be clear that the American ideal does not necessitate blind support for free and fair elections.

I guess I have to get back to work now.

TJE said...

Good discussion. Reminds me of the good old days of Markay/Klondar debates.

Ian Thresher said...

(1/2) You make several persuasive arguments, and I readily concede many of your points. The United States does have a very good system of checks and balances, and the rights of the individual have always been placed above the power of the majority (Westboro Baptist Church). I agree with you that certain groups could become alienated and persecuted if an antagonistic party came into the majority. A fifty-one percent majority could democratically ignore the rights of the other forty-nine percent in countries like Egypt, which do not possess a strong justice system or a meaningful bill of rights. But in order to make your point, I think you have narrowed your view. While it is possible that a broad majority could come to power and trample on the rights of the minority, I am not convinced that the U.S. should not unconditionally support Democratic movements and free elections. A majority party could institute reforms that went wholly against agreeably American values and could curb the rights of the minority. Yet, I I believe that the scenario you present is an incurable one for any system of government that lacks the appropriate safety nets, but that democracy puts up the best defense.

Ian Thresher said...

(2/2) Let us go back to our hypothetical country. You set out certain parameters for the country, e.g. that it lacks many of the institutional checks and balances that we possess in America as well as any codified rights that might protect the minority from the predations of the majority. Drawing further from your example, a majority of the country’s citizens want to persecute the minority. As I said, narrowly you are correct in your argument that the persecution of the minority by a majority is against American ideals and could be accomplished through democratic elections. But if you broaden your view a little bit more, you will be compelled to support democracy and fair elections. In such a country as the one you have described, it would be very easy for the majority to assume control without any sort of democratic elections. Who is going to stop them? The group would not be bound by any sort of election or term constraints and could set about persecuting the minority. If there is such a majority party, what can the U.S. do? You have already conceded that an American backed dictator is not a solution, nor is military intervention. As I argued in my last post, your objection is one of parties, not of democracy. The International Community should oppose the majority party, declare all sorts of sanctions against it, and offer refuge to its citizens. Ultimately, though, a majority party in the hypothetical country has all of the power. There is no easy way to go about solving an issue like that, but at least democracy gives the people a chance to vote on the party and an opportunity for the minority to raise objections and put up a firm defense. Support for republics and democracies must be unconditional because they are the best safeguards against tyranny. If the vast majority of a country’s citizens are hell bent on killing the rest of the citizens, there is nothing any government could do. No other system of government comes close to being able to solve the problem that you have posed. Democracy, at least, makes a valiant effort.

I think that you also need to remember the rights of the majority. While I would never suggest that they should be able to oppress the minority, I do think they have the right to shape and pass legislation and move a country in a certain direction. As long as they did not violate the rights of others, I think the majority should be able to bring up and pass whatever legislation they think necessary. If, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood ran for office I would completely agree with their right to do so. If they won, the citizens should be bound by all laws that they passed so long as those laws were constitutional. Even if their Foreign Policy was at odds with American interests, America should continue to support the democratic/republican institution, if not the party that currently controlled it. If the Muslim Brotherhood put an end to liberal democracy then the U.S. has every right to oppose it, but it seems you are more concerned with their ability to come to power through open elections. I understand that many countries do not possess our zealous protection of individual rights under the law, and I think that is something that needs to be corrected just as surely as dictatorships. I would not, in fact, classify a country as a democracy or a republic if it did not possess some sort of legal bill of rights and a judicial system to enforce those rights. In short, I agree with the premise that a democracy could bring about a scenario in which American ideals suffer, but I do not think that that alone, given the lack of other solutions and the stability of democracies, means the U.S. should not unconditionally support open democratic elections.

Lachlan said...

This is essentially your argument in sum: "I agree with the premise that a democracy could bring about a scenario in which American ideals suffer, but I do not think that that alone, given the lack of other solutions and the stability of democracies, means the U.S. should not unconditionally support open democratic elections." In other words, democracy may on occasion be a setback for American ideals, but democracy itself should be the overriding concern.

Smart foreign policy requires an assessment of reality and its bearing on American ideals and interests. You freely acknowledge that democracy may, in some instances, work against both American ideals and American interests. Blindly supporting such an approach is not smart foreign policy. If democracy is better than any alternative, then clearly it deserves support from the United States. But if State determines that neither our interests nor our ideals will be served by a democratically-elected regime, it would be foolish to say the least to throw American support behind that regime.

What I am advocating is nuance in foreign policy. Assess the situation and see if all parties involved are best served by democratic elections. If they are, support those elections. If they're not, don't support them. A lack of support doesn't require an American-backed dictator or an invasion. It just means the U.S. doesn't unconditionally back a regime hostile to liberal democracy and to the United States. Most democracies will not elect such regimes, but some will (and have). There is no reason that State should not choose to remain skeptical of democratic elections when they bring enemies of our interests and ideals to power - and refrain from legitimizing or condemning those elections until it's clear whether the victorious parties are friends or enemies.

You, on the other hand, are advancing an approach to foreign policy whereby the United States supports regimes without regard for their stances on individual rights or the enhancement of American interests abroad. As we've established, democratic legitimacy does not imply respect for political and legal rights, so an unconditional support for democracy means the United States will inevitably grant hostile and oppressive - though democratically legitimate - regimes its blessing. That sort of ham-fisted approach is the opposite of smart power.

As for whether a majority will inevitably gain power whether through democracy or sheer force (and will, if disposed to do so, oppress a given minority), there are innumerable examples throughout history of majorities - religious, ethnic, national - that were viciously oppressed by their minority rulers. Saddam Hussein's Sunni Muslim Baath Party, for instance, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shia, the country's majority, throughout his near-25 years ruling that country.

Lachlan said...

You write: "No other system of government comes close to being able to solve the problem that you have posed." Not true. Constitutional republicanism solves it pretty darned well. It's not democracy that affords Americans the protections against state action that they enjoy, it's the law - our Constitution. Democracy determines who runs the government; the Constitution determines the powers of the government, regardless of who runs it. Our rights are not derived from democratic consent. They are pre-political - they existed, in the American conception of rights, before a government was even formed. The government only exists to serve those rights, and if it fails to do so - even it it retains the support of a democratic majority - it is in violation of its charter.

You write: "As long as they did not violate the rights of others, I think the majority should be able to bring up and pass whatever legislation they think necessary." I agree wholeheartedly - it's that "as long as" that I'm worried about. The fact is that American legal protections are the exception, not the rule, and hence in most young democracies there are no means of preventing a majority from infringing on the minority's basic rights. You repeatedly offer qualifiers such as "as long as", yet still advocate blind support for elections even when a majority does violate others' rights

You say support democracy unconditionally, which means support it regardless of the majority's actions and beliefs, even if they are in direct conflict with the rights of the governed. I support democracy as long as those rights are not violated. You support it even if they are violated. I think the Untied States should assess all governments' stances on liberal democracy before offering American support for those governments. You are advocating that we support all democratically elected governments and then hope that they don't violate their citizens' rights (which they often do).

You pegged me as a realist in your first comment, but I'm the one here strenuously advocating a support of American ideals (and a refusal to back regimes that violate those ideals). But I can't see realism or liberalism in the foreign policy you're advocating. You seem to believe that neither American ideals (respect for individual rights) nor American interests should override endorsements of democratic outcomes.

You may very well believe that democracy should be the overriding concern, and that all others should be subordinated to it in all cases. But such an approach serves neither American interests nor American ideals (it might end up serving both in some cases, but will undoubtedly hinder both in others - hence neither values nor interests are your primary concern).

Ian Thresher said...

I think that you misunderstand the thrust of my arguments. I will attempt to clarify my points. I never thought, nor do I currently think, that democracy is against American interests. It is true that democracy may prevent the U.S. from acquiring “yes-men” who are able to give us oil at lower prices or aid in our fight against terror. But, and this is something I do not think you see, American interests are better served when other countries enjoy more stability, more accountability, and less resentment. Democratic countries are far more peaceful, especially towards other democracies, then one-party rule or dictatorships. This stability allows countries to prosper economically and serve as both an importer of American technologies and an exporter of marketable materials. A democracy allows the people to be held accountable for their rulers and gives them the power to change their plight. This, in turn, makes it far less likely that angry young men will blame the “west” for the corruption or economic stagnation in their country. Your foreign policy appears to work well for a few years on the surface, but in reality such a stance disrupts long term economic progress, regional stability (Tunisian riots inspired Egyptian riots), and immediate security (restless, unemployed young men turn towards religious extremism).

I would also like to clarify that I never said, nor do I believe, that the U.S. should ever support a regime that oppressed its citizens (interestingly, the U.S. often does do this while trying to follow your “smart” foreign policy). I simply said the U.S. should support democracy in the region and fair elections. If an oppressive regime came to power, I do not think that the U.S. should support it at all. In fact, I have said on several occasions that I would hope that an international coalition would condemn such a party.

You say you support “nuance in foreign policy,” and go on to assert that the U.S. should support those countries if “all parties involved are best served by democracy.” What are “all parties?” The U.S.? As I explained earlier the U.S., and most other countries, are always better off dealing with a democratic country. (You may object to this, and point to your scenario, but as I have explained there is no easy answer to this and I contend that Democracy is the best of the possible solutions.) The people? Which people? Clearly not a majority of them. The U.S. friendly party? The U.S. does a disservice to the people to block elections if America’s preferred party is not going to win. As we have seen again and again, such practices only engender more hostility towards the U.S. and less stability in the country. The U.S. should never grant an oppressive regime its blessing simply because it won in open elections. It may recognize the party’s right to legitimacy, but you are taking a very large leap if you take that to mean “support.”

Ian Thresher said...

I am somewhat surprised at your argument that minority parties held on to government and were able to oppress the majority as I do not see how it helps your case. Such scenarios simply reinforce my argument of the importance for democracy. If any of those countries were democratic, the majority would simply vote them out.

You then dive into a Straw Man argument that has little relevance to our main debate. I am well aware that the U.S. is a constitutional republic and I am further aware that that is the main reason our rights are safeguarded. As I understood it, we were talking about a country that, as you said, had no such constitutional safeguards. Obviously a constitutional republic safeguards the rights of the people better than a democracy, but in the absence of those types of safeguards (which was the case in our hypothetical country) there is no real way to deal with a situation in which a majority of the citizens want to oppress a minority (unless, of course, the minority oppresses them but I think we can both agree that this is not a favorable outcome), but as I explained in my last post, democracy (as opposed to a dictatorship, aristocracy, oligarchy, or theocracy) provides the best safeguard against such oppression.

Finally, I think you are confusing democracy as an institution from the parties that could come to power as a result of democracy. America should support free and open elections, but that does not necessarily mean that America needs to support the regime/party that comes to power as a result of those elections. Put simply, America’s long term interests are always best served if a country becomes a democracy, especially economic and security interests. You are correct in what you take to be my main argument, but you draw an incorrect conclusion from it. Democracy itself is never a setback for American ideals; the parties that come to power as a result of a democracy are the ones who may not share American ideals. American ideals come from and are protected by our constitutional republic and I think the best way to bring those ideals to other countries is not by interfering in their government or denying them democratic elections, it is by actively supporting their right to decide who should run their government. Bringing American ideals cannot be accomplished overnight, it is a laborious, long term process that can only come about in a democratic country.

I continue to support the practice of democracy even when elections lead to an oppressive majority because, as I explained earlier, there is no cure for preventing a majority from oppressing a minority if there are no constitutional safeguards, democracy, however, is the best way of stemming the tide (minority opposition, various factions, etc.). I do not see how such an event could ever end well and I would be curious and not a little bit surprised to hear a better solution (one constrained by the parameters of our constitution-less country.)