In watching the news unfold in the last days, a persistent image came to mind. It was George W. Bush walking hand in hand with Saudi King Abdullah. And it wasn’t the picture or the particular president, but the perfect metaphor for American foreign policy over the years, most especially in the Near East. Republicans and Democrats alike have happily engaged in a similar embrace. Of course that photograph (and all the others like it) comes with a caption: hypocrisy.
For longer than any of us can remember, our country — that include its citizens — has beaten its collective breast about democracy for all, while at the same time winking at, or totally averting our eyes from, the dictatorships in the oil patch. Not only do we business with these friends, we engage in the most reprehensible moral relativism, all with a straight face. Iran’s Supreme Leader is bad (he has nothing we need); Egypt’s Supreme President is good (Suez). Democracy is the Holy Grail; the election of Hamas is the ultimate catastrophe. I sometimes feel the same way about people we elect in this country, but let me not digress. So now we’re left scrambling, which includes a good measure of wishful thinking. Mubarak should go, but let’s make it orderly — no rush to the polls.
You can say that what we’ve done over the years is just how it goes in international affairs. Call it Realpolitik. After all, how we feel or what principles we may advocate, doesn’t give us license to interfere with another nation’s politics and system. Right. Caption that one hypocrisy too. Not only is this excuse is laughable; it’s contained by a leaky vessel that can no longer hold water.
Finally, and one wonders (while at the same time knowing) why coming to the moment of truth took so long. It may not yet be game over but only a fool doubts that Cairo is a fundamental game changer. We are clearly unnerved by it and, after years of deaf, dumb and blind, not brilliantly prepared. It is a major test for President Obama who once again is left to clean up the mess others have left behind. His famous Cairo speech suggests that he comes to it with a better mindset than his predecessors, but only time will tell. No one knows better than he (or should) that rhetoric is the easy part.
Needless to say, the weakening and potential collapse of the old order in their neighborhood has enormous implications for Israel. As of a few days ago, their reaction has been to pull inward and harden the line that divides them from peace. That’s a terrible mistake — in my view, potentially a fatal one. The Egypt of Sadat and Mubarak have given Israel an unrealistic sense of security, leaving them without what they need most — a sense of urgency. If now is the time for Mubarak to go, it’s way past now for peace to be negotiated and implemented with the Palestinians. I hope it’s not too late.