Monday, January 31, 2011

Iran, Egypt, And The Tipping Point

My Nixon buddy Hugh Hewitt writes to say that he's not endorsing a military crackdown in Egypt nor under any illusion that we could do anything to bring one about.

As for the comparison between Egypt's unrest and the 1978-79 Iranian revolution that led to the shah's ouster, Hewitt's unique perspective on the latter comes from his work during those months on Richard Nixon's staff in San Clemente, working on Nixon's 1980 book The Real War. It's for Hewitt to write about what 37 said privately about Iranian and U.S. policy as opposition pressure built on the shah's regime. Had his broad liberalization policies offended the Shi'ite mullahs? Could he have held onto power, and prevented considerable misery for his people and headaches for his neighbors and us, by pushing back in the streets before protests got out of hand?

In The Real War, Nixon described his conversation with the exiled shah in Mexico in 1979:
As he sees it now, the crucial mistake the United States made was not in giving him support or failing to give him support but in being indecisive. One day, he would receive public and private assurances [from the Carter administration] of all-out support. The next day, a story would be leaked to the effect that second-level U.S. emissaries were in contact with his opposition. The day after that, a statement from the White House would indicate that the United States, in the event the shah was overthrown, would accept any government the people wanted. A vacillating United States government could not seem to decide whether to support the shah unequivocally, force him to compromise with his enemies, or leave him free to maneuver without its support.
Obama can't be accused of the same kind of equivocation in Egypt. His administration seems to have adopted a unified policy of studied ambiguity, wanting neither to offend Mubarak's successors nor, in the event he stays for a while, Mubarak. I don't think Obama has any other choice. In Iran, had we wanted to, we had months to work in coordination with the shah to forestall the rule of the grim theocrat Ruhollah Khomeini, who had set up a government-in-exile in France. The Egyptian crisis blossomed overnight, ruling out much of a U.S. role.

One think we can't and shouldn't evade is our status as a friend of the Mubarak regime, which among other things is a possibly indispensable cornerstone of the Israel-Palestinian peace process. Besides, if the U.S. is going to stop backing authoritarian regimes, somebody had better be prepared to take over from Beijing buying trillions in U.S. treasuries. Obama would have looked weak and opportunistic by abandoning Mubarak too early. Instead, he'll wait for the tipping point, when helping usher Mubarak out of power would be the fitting work of a realistic friend.

As of this morning, it doesn't look like we're there quite yet. Right now, I'm watching former UN ambassador John Bolton gently praise Obama's handling of the situation and predict that Mubarak wants to hold on until his current term expires later this year.


J.C. Marrero said...

Do most of the demonstrators want change or revenge? Is Mubarak seen by the majority as an old, corrupt quasi-dictator or a bona fide bad guy?

Fr. John said...

It feels like the former. And while I'm all for heartfelt public expressions, I can only hope that the vast majority of demonstrating Egyptians are as horrified as we are by the damage done to the museum in Cairo and by the looting of businesses and homes. I don't excuse Mubarak, because it's a leader's job to keep his or her people's passions under control. But the people can be a beast.

J.C. Marrero said...

I agree. The "people" and the "mob" are sides of the same coin.

Luckily, America had a war of independence, not a revolution of the usual "off with their heads" kind.

MK said...

Thanks for providing a little background on Hewitt. I appreciate it. I went to Townhall and read some of his columns. I also Googled him and read a few radio transcripts. I won’t be joining his readers or listeners (I am a moderate and a former Republican) but it is a free country, as they say. I did find one interesting transcript which I may blog about tomorrow morning. If you don’t mind, I’m going to create something which reads, “Hewitt Rule Applies.” If you quote Hewitt in a post, and I want to address what others say, I’ll state the rule, then address the others’ points. I feel that's the best course for me. I don’t plan to address any points Hewitt makes that you may extract (sorry, can’t explain why). Yet I don’t want anyone to construe silence as consent or disagreement with him, since I obviously will have read the post! I’m just skittish about some things, for better or worse, let's just leave it at that, if we can. Thanks again!

Fr. John said...

Fair enough, MK; many thanks.