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The news from the Middle East holds danger and opportunity for the US and the world. These events represent the very essence of the meaning of the word "crisis." The actions of the Obama administration will determine the course of events there and possibly the success of his own presidency.

Image by George Cassutto
Copyright 2011
Used with permission.

The emergence of “people power” in Tunisia, Algeria, and now Egypt places the policies of the United States and the Obama administration in a precarious balancing act. The United States government has expressed views that indicate support for the pro-democracy movement of these Arab states in transition, but there are national security issues at stake that the Obama administration must monitor. The lesson of Iraq is that once a dictator is removed from power, there is the potential for Islamic extremists and anti-US forces to fill the void left in its wake. The United States does not want to see a similar scenario unfold should the decades-old regime of Hosni Mubarak fall.

Both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have called on the Egyptian government to protect the human and political rights of the Egyptian people. The US government knows the Egyptian government is not a democracy. It has used repressive tactics against its own people, and it is doing so to quell the unrest that is sweeping across the nation right now. The Egyptian government has deployed both police forces and elements of the military to put down the riots. It has also suspended all online and cell phone communication to disrupt any further organization on the part of anti-government protesters. The US government is loathe to alienate a democratic movement that could lead the populists in Egypt to turn to Al-Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood or other extremist groups waiting to take power.

President Obama went to Cairo in 2009 to outline American ideals as they might be implemented in a Middle Eastern context. He expressed an understanding that democracy in the Middle East will not look like American democracy, and he asserted that it is not America’s goal to impose its own political system on the people of the Middle East. But the very fact that Obama went to Cairo to address the “Arab street,” as public opinion is called in the Muslim world, shows that American policy in the region must not fall into a  characterization of being hypocritical. Obama said in June of 2009 at the University of Cairo: 

… [T]here are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

  The course of American foreign policy in the Middle East today resembles a braided rope of ideas all closely intertwined to form one policy:

  1. Support the aspirations of the people of the Middle East to participate in their own national destiny.
  2. Call on governments to renounce violence both in the form of repressive actions against protesters and in the form of Islamic extremism that might emerge in the wake of change.
  3. Protect American interests in that region, which include support for the state of Israel, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and the formation of terror-free and stable governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, where so much American blood and treasure has been spent over the past decade.

As of this writing, no one knows how history will unfold. We could see a peoples’ revolution such as when we witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union and planting of the seeds of democracy in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Ukraine during the early 1990s. Conversely, we could see history repeat itself in the same tragic way as it did in China’s Tienanmen Square in 1980, when the military moved against its own people, ending a pro-democracy movement in the world’s most populous nation that has never re-emerged. Either way, President Obama, his State Department, and his foreign policy advisers must continue to gather reliable intelligence as they watch the Middle East live out American ideals of popular sovereignty and self-expression. As they watch, they will be undergoing one of the most challenging foreign policy tests of the Obama presidency.