The crisis in Egypt underscores a crucial need for Washington to focus on America's most essential foreign policy priorities and put aside other international issues, vexing as they may be, that do not rise to the level of vital national interest.
Egypt fits that category. It is the largest and most influential country in the Middle East and North Africa, its army helps to keep the peace in the Near East, and its economy has the potential to grow rapidly and be a model for other states in the region.
What Egypt lacks is a government that responds to the yearnings of millions of its citizens who want freedom and a voice in how their country is governed. This does not require a full-fledged democracy modeled on European or American institutions, but it does call for free elections and a national assembly that has influence on major government decisions.
Whether President Hosni Mubarak steps down and makes way for a transition government and national elections is not clear, although he pledged not to run again. Change is coming, however, and the crucial question is whether it will come through revolution, as it did in Iran, or through an orderly, evolutionary process as occurred in eastern Europe in the 1990s.
A growing number of commentators and a few former officials are calling on President Obama publicly to tell President Hosni Mubarak to resign and make way for a new, more acceptable interim president. Such advice is wrong, for two reason. First, Mr. Mubarak, a proud man who has been in power for nearly thirty years, is unlikely to bow to pressure from the American president, or any foreign leader, that he should leave; second, the idea that a U.S. president has the power in 2011 to persuade the leader of a major ally to leave office is symptomatic of the hubris that continues to permeate the thinking of many Americans.
U.S. influence in the world has declined markedly from the time when President Eisenhower could tell a British prime minister in 1956 to reverse course on a foreign policy decision and bring about his ouster; when President Kennedy could urge South Vietnam's leader in 1963 to change his domestic policy and acquiesced in his ouster when he refused; when President Carter suggested that Iran's Shah should leave his country in 1979, which led to the current revolutionary anti-American regime; or when President Reagan urged the Philippine president in 1986 to retire, and helped to bring about his defeat in national elections.
What has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. troops were deployed to rid those countries of undemocratic, hostile regimes is instructive. Neither of them, President Karzai in Kabul nor Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad, accepts much U.S. advice on how to exercise authority in their countries.
This brings into focus a major problem that U.S. media, some politicians, and many Americans seem confused about: which of the many foreign policy issues and crises currently in the news are crucial to the security and well-being of the United States and require presidential action? Do human rights abuses in many countries rise to that level?
I was struck recently by the headline of a Wall Street Journal column (Bret Stephens, Jan. 11) which read: "Haiti, Sudan, Cote d'Ivoire: Who Cares?" It's a question many thoughtful Americans ask as they are inundated by reports of political upheavals in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Why should we care, they ask. Why does America need to be involved with military and financial aid in so many places around the world, especially when our country is in serious economic trouble?
Egypt is a crucial foreign policy and national security priority and the Obama administration proceeds prudently in urging a peaceful transition. But U.S. influence has declined in the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, in Lebanon, and in Pakistan whose government is losing control of the country. It also has little influence on North Korea, whose government is propped up by China.
In each case, the United States' ability to influence events is shrinking, yet many people urge President Obama to assert more leadership in these areas. We should accept the reality that this country can't police the whole world and must be more prudent about which issues are vital to its national interests. The crisis in Egypt is clearly at the top of that list.
File last modified on Friday, 4-FEB-2010 10:05 AM EST