Where Are the Black Voices on Egypt and Tunisia?
African Americans have traditionally been the conscience of the country on foreign policy issues. But as Tunisia and Egypt erupt, we have been strangely mute.
The epidemic of democratic yearning that has erupted in the Arab world is not good for the United States. America has too often been on the wrong side of the human rights struggle, and now, in a region of enormous strategic importance, we face unpredictable consequences and could end up paying for our long-standing hypocrisy in foreign affairs.
U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama, have long said all the right words about the importance of democracy. But Muslims, Christians and Jews from Tel Aviv to Casablanca to Baghdad know that we haven't really meant it. We drew uncomfortably close to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria -- and let's not even start listing the tyrants further east in the former Soviet "stans."
Superpowers have a tendency to side with authoritarian regimes that support their objectives -- or at least pretend to. Democracies are too unreliable, too complicated, require a lot of maintenance and tend to challenge assumptions. "We preach democracy and then prop up despots," Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, bluntly told The Root. "We do it all the time."
The revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen have shattered the prevailing wisdom that democracy was not important in the region and that our allies were firmly in control. The wildfires started in Tunisia, but Tunisian anger right now is aimed primarily at former colonial power France, which embraced ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali for 23 years. Paris was so oblivious to the genuine rage of ordinary Tunisians that the "Jasmine Revolution" was a giant shock to its Middle East "experts." In one of the worst pieces of diplomatic timing in decades, France offered Ben Ali "expertise" in putting down unrest even as he was packing his bags.
The U.S. may not be spared blame in Egypt, where America is seen as the malevolent uncle who cemented a brutal regime's position with billions of dollars in cash, military equipment and intelligence about its opponents. And as Egypt erupts in the deepest and most dangerous challenge to the Mubarak regime yet, the Obama administration sounds no different from its predecessors.
On Friday, President Obama continued to stress Mubarak's importance in the struggle against terrorism while adding a soupçon of sympathy for the demonstrators, to hedge his bets. The president hinted that the U.S. might suspend the $1.5 billion in aid it provides Egypt annually, giving the U.S. an exit if the winds (or the Egyptian military) turn against Mubarak.
There's always a chance that Egypt's untimely outburst of self-determination will be strangled and the U.S. and its unsavory ally will attempt to resume business as usual. But if this expanding pressure for regime change succeeds, America could soon be dealing with a government that blames us for ignoring, and even helping to stifle, the country's long-standing desire to live free -- and it is likely to be a lot less interested in helping us battle al-Qaida or solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue.