When crowds began gathering in Tahrir Square in Cairo to demand Egypt grant people more freedom and democratic voice, many Americans got a crash course on the place this nation holds in the Middle East. After invading Israel in 1967, Egypt became a key ally of U.S. efforts to sustain the in-dependent Jewish state. In 1978, photos of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and U.S. President Jimmy Carter linking arms became an indelible image of hope for peace in the region.
But until last month, most Americans probably did not realize that though Egypt was a U.S. ally, its government essentially was a dictatorship. Some have expressed outrage that the U.S. has backed the Mubarak regime for decades. As with most relationships, it’s complicated.
Foreign policy can proceed from a number of premises. One is that the U.S. can act globally simply to protect its own interests. Under this scenario, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” holds sway; or, in the case of Egypt, the friend of my friend certainly is my friend. “Looking out for its interests” could include U.S. defense interests — does an alliance protect the nation from attack? — and economic interests — does an alliance ensure a supply of cheap oil?
For most of the 20th century, Americans understood foreign policy as standing on the principles of human rights and self-determination. That is why the U.S. entered World War II against German and Japanese aggression. And that is why the U.S. stood against the Soviet Union for the 40-year Cold War.
But during this same period, the U.S. backed ruthless dictators around the globe, either to further larger goals in its standoff with the Soviet Union, or purely for economic reasons. Among the dictators the U.S. has backed are: Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Gen. Francisco Franco in Spain, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Halie Salassie in Ethiopa, Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, Manuel Noriega in Panama, Jean Claude Duvalier in Haiti and P.W. Botha in South Africa.
The case of Iraq and Iran is especially illustrative. When the two nations were at war, shortly after Iranian students took U.S. embassy staff hostage, the Reagan administration happily sold weapons to Saddam Hussein. A few years later, the same administration illegally sold weapons to Iran to secure the release of hostages and fund attacks against Nicaraguan Marxists.
To suggest that Americans simply must accept this dark legacy as the way of the world would be cynical. One course that would take the U.S. away from some of these embarrassing allegiances is for it to consider itself a player only in key spheres. The Middle East clearly must be one of those spheres. But in others, the time has come to take a step back from wielding influence through partnering with nefarious regimes.
The U.S. never may be purely a force for human rights and self-determination around the world. But even measuring by self-interest terms, backing tyrants has not yielded a harvest of peace and prosperity.