Appropriateness in Foreign Policy is a Virtue, Really

Paul Evans

Neither President Obama nor the panoply of would-be Republican successors now arguing for more aggressive actions in Egypt (and other places) has the ability to control the outcome of crisis within a country, much less a region.

Images from Egypt stir our passions. Americans want others to enjoy the safety, security, and structures inherent to our Republic – even as we promote the systems required for our own security, the security of our allies, and the security of our cooperative interests abroad.

Achieving these things is not impossible but it is very, very difficult – under the best of circumstances, very nearly impossible under the worst.

Like it or not, we are committed to the realities throughout the Middle East. As the people of the region struggle with the challenges of globalism, modernity, and technology we must remain engaged, principled, and resolute.

Egypt, Israel and Jordan are our strongest allies: we owe these nations far more than diplomatic, economic, and military support. Each of these nations have stood with us at times that few others would even consider doing so.

Libya may emerge as an ally but too much remains to be settled as factions determine the means for sustainable progress.

Among the region we spend considerable talent, time, and treasure on maintaining relationships with Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Yemen. These and other nation-states share mutual interests and we will likely continue to work cooperatively as long as we share those interests.

That said, we must be aware that the world as we know – the world as we helped shape it – is in transition. And the day of PAX AMERICA is over, if ever it really existed.

Neither President Obama nor the panoply of would-be Republican successors now arguing for more aggressive actions in Egypt (and other places) has the ability to control the outcome of crisis within a country, much less a region.

Nor should they.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq proved our limitations in determining the course of other nations if nothing else; we learned we cannot command nor control political outcomes within a region with little practice in democracy – in an environment where sectarian issues still reign supreme.

Most importantly, even if we could determine the course for another nation, we should be wise enough to recognize the futility in doing so. Our experiences throughout the Middle East are a legacy of supporting interests too often at the expense of the people.

I applaud President Obama’s self-discipline.

In the USA it is easier to make a big speech and send troops to promote our ideals: it is much more difficult – and important – to demonstrate our ideals (especially respect for self-determination) through communicating our hopes and supporting actions that reflect our values.

Our biggest mistake in recent decades has been our inability to be honest with ourselves about our most appropriate role in foreign policy.

We confused our global reach with global command. The US remains the greatest force for good on the planet - when we keep our priorities straight, our egos in check.

We have immense capacity to do good. We can facilitate democratic ideals, even foster an environment within which a Republic can grow, but we cannot (and must not try) to force the establishment of a democracy upon our terms, or within our time-frames.

We must always emphasize the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - even as we remain flexible in how other people's determine those values for themselves.

In Egypt the military is understood (by the largest segment of the population) as a stabilizing force. Moreover, absent a more legitimate alternative, the military is the best potential partner for sustained reform.

Sadly, events of the past week have called a lot of that legitimacy into question: over 600 dead, 4,000 wounded as a result of demonstrations that turned terribly wrong.

The President was right to cancel the scheduled military exercises: it is an appropriate step to demonstrate US frustration with the deaths associated with the recent “crack-downs.” There is no excuse for massacring peaceful demonstrators.

However, we also know there is far more going on than what is being shown on the media: Egypt is embroiled in tensions bordering on civil war. Pulling foreign aid at this point would destabilize the most stable structure in a society on the precipice of chaos.

We must continue to emphasize our expectations of peaceful resolutions for political crisis. We must continue to balance the needs for near-term and far-term achievement: a free Egypt as a contributing member of the community of nations – a result of a self-determined process of reform.

For many years we emphasized the value of our power. It is time for us to recognize the value of our ideals. Taken together we can strengthen our position throughout the world: we must always answer our enemies with force, but we must not always find enemies where there may be none.

The most effective role we can play regarding Egypt is the role we have been playing. We must be honest but patient; we must be gentle in our reproaches and willing partners in cooperative reform that reflects sincerity of democratic efforts.

In the end, we may find the Egyptian military nothing less or more than another structure bent on totalitarianism. But we are not there yet. Thus far the military has tried to bring order to chaos and support the general will of the people.

Let us see what happens in the next few months before we pull our aid and kick the legs out from underneath the transitional government. This is a difficult time and we must not allow ourselves to be led astray by “bumpersticker diplomacy.”

Contrary to Bush and his Vulcans – the world is far more complex, far more difficult to control than imagined. So much so that the only way to succeed is to never try.

We must stand for our ideals. We must stand with our friends when they demonstrate them, and be honest when they fall short. And we must remember that our best role within the world is that of friend and helper – not decider of all.

Once upon a time politics stopped at the water's edge: we may never be able to return to that sense of unity on matters of foreign policy, but we can - and must - recognize that during times such as these cautious, rational, and well-reasoned measures are better than knee-jerk reactions.

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