Thoughts On Secretary Clinton’s Response To Egypt

As always when I venture out of my areas of specialization, let me preface all following remarks with the obvious reminder—I am by no means a foreign policy expert or a Middle East expert.  So take the following on the merits of my arguments and bring forth any facts you think I may need to consider which I do not.

I’m an American, I have no desire to see dictators flourish and I am lefist enough to be deeply skeptical of the United States’ history of militaristic imperialism to take seriously the grave moral error involved in our entanglements with dictators.  So I understand the moral weight behind arguments that the U.S. should immediately withdraw its support for this current dictator, Hosni Mubarak, as on moral principle we should not have been supporting him in the first place for 30 years.

In this context, I think that Secretary Clinton’s interview this morning was honest about the United States’s pragmatic needs while still supporting the ultimate goal that we should all be concerned for, that Egypt be ruled by the will of its people—and that the will of its people be humane, free, and prosperity creating for all its citizens, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others alike.

So, even though in her interview she does not say she wants Mubarak to step down, she advocates as forcefully for democracy as she can consistent with, as I understand it, long term concerns for stability in the region and with deference to the Egyptian people’s will.  Here is the video and the transcript is here:

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If we really want the United States not to be dictating to foreign countries what they should do then we should applaud these remarks by Secretary Clinton since they not only insist repeatedly that the United States support democracy but that the Egyptian people themselves determine the outcome in the region.

Yes, she leaves the door open to Mubarak to stay if he actually established truly democratic reforms.  We can seize on that, if we like, to say she’s not hard-line enough on removing a dictator.  But insisting that a dictator should only stay if he performs democratic reforms is not insisting that that dictator’s dictatorship remain.

So, that is arguing explicitly for democracy as something she will insist on.  But does she insist that only by removing Mubarak can the Egyptian people get their democracy and what she repeatedly, in clear solidarity with the protesters, calls their legitimate needs met?  Why should she?  She specifies exactly what one of their most important needs is—democracy—why should she alienate Mubarak who is a vital strategic ally for reasons she comes right out and admits, by insisting it cannot happen without him?  If it cannot and everyone knows that, then let everyone know that and draw the inference.  She does not have to come out and say it in that case when there is no extra upside in doing so.

If the protesters lose out and Mubarak stays in power, the U.S. will not have encouraged dictatorship and shown no solidarity with the protesters.  The U.S. would have repeatedly legitimized their demands.  If, under some unlikely scenario Mubarak were forced into a compromise position in which he did actually implement democratic reforms that genuinely pleased the protesters, then we have both a U.S. ally who has upheld his commitments to Israel and a more just government in his country, which is the best of both worlds (regardless of our own sins and Israel’s sins in the region, which are separate issues from this).

If he retains power in a democratized Egypt which, if accounts are correct, would be even more hostile to us and to Israel, then we will have ironically alienated the leader of the new democratic Egypt and made it all the easier for him to follow their democratic desire to support both us and Israel less.  Even those deeply critical of Israel’s behavior in the recent past cannot imagine that losing one of their few Arab state supporters is going to soften their stance on anything or make them feel less embattled, can they?

And Secretary Clinton went and specifically indicated that we would not be happy with sham elections and the mere appearance of democratic reforms.  She very artfully and cleverly cited Iran’s phony elections rather than Mubarak’s long history of them to be diplomatic, but it’s clearly as thinly veiled a swipe at an integral ally’s legitimacy as can be diplomatically be made.

“But she still would not call Mubarak a dictator and demand he step down”, you protest.  But if we genuinely believe in democracy is it our place to say that?  What does that add?  How is that democratic?  She has insisted on democracy, expressly and repeatedly.  She has not specified the desired outcome of a power struggle in a foreign country and it’s not her place to do so if we really believe in democracy.  The one thing we can say, and that she says, is the same thing we would say everywhere—that we hope that the legitimate needs of the people are met and that the people are heard and that democracy win out

Why should she pick sides and support anything more specific?  If she says she supports the protesters over Mubarak, then who does she mean?  Which faction?  What if the Islamists come to represent the dominant faction?  Is she then stuck supporting them even as they are theocratic?

Everything is up in the air.  No one knows with any clear idea who or what exactly the alternatives to Mubarak are or whether they would actually be better off for the Egyptian people.  So she insists that legitimate needs be addressed, that Mubarak take seriously the protesters’ expression of the will of the people and not lump them in with criminals undeservingly, and that democracy prevail.  And she admits that we have important interests that he has helped us on.  How much more upfront can she be under the circumstances?

She is standing up for the principle of self-determination by the Egyptians both in words and deeds here.  She is encouraging an outcome that could theoretically involve our tyrannous ally but she is neither saying she is rooting for him to stay in power nor prematurely endorsing any other party in some imperialistic and shortsighted way.

She admits that we have a deal with this devil for specific reasons as a pragmatic reality.  If we should not have the deal at all if she had her way, that is a whole other question. But she has not been Secretary of State for 30 years, only two, and she has not herself set up any of our evil arrangements with dictators, but rather works within the constraints of the nation whose leadership she has helped to take over and advocates for a least of all evils position given the existing deeply complicated and potentially explosive connections we are already in.

I do not think Hillary Clinton wants anything less than humane, liberal, non-theocratic, non-autocratic, secular, open democracy for Egypt.  But alienating Mubarak any more than absolutely necessary and meddling imperialistically with the organic process of Egyptians finding their own voice and reclaiming their own government is not the solution.  There is no guarantee that any such action would either help topple the dictator, help assure he is replaced with anything better than what he offers, or increase stability in the region.

Sometimes the pragmatic road is the most morally necessary one and I think that given the circumstances, Secretary Clinton has advocated as forcefully for genuine democracy as she can without either dictating to Egypt who should rule it and without committing us to any course of action that has potentially irreversible awful consequences should Mubarak come out of this still in power.

I get why purists want her just to say “the dictator must go” rather than just that “the dictatorship must go”.  And I am glad the purists exist because otherwise it would be a world of only cynics.  And in a world of cynics, brilliant pragmatists like Clinton and Obama would not be possible since the cynics would rule unabated and no one would ever have to pragmatically balance the will of the purists against the cynics.

But, nonetheless, taking a view of all the consequences and principles at stake, I think Clinton is threading the needle admirably from what I have seen and heard.

But, of course, these issues are deeply complex and require a great grasp of facts, tremendous foresight, and expert moral sensitivity.  So let me know if I’m missing anything, being naive in any demonstrable respect, or being morally insensate to highly relevant details.

For a far different, and far less sympathetic, interpretation of Secretary Clinton’s meaning, see the video here.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Chris

    I like your thoughts and happen to agree with them

  • The Vicar

    Meh. The entire OFFICIAL U.S. response — that is, the response from Obama and Clinton, not Republicans and pundits — boils down to “oh, crap, we can’t tell how this is going to turn out and we’re too cowardly to actually take a stand that might lose.” This speech is just more of the same. It may be wise, in a limited way, but it’s not particularly admirable.


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