photo: Al Jazeera

First Tunisia, then Egypt, and next comes . . .?

The media reporters, pundits, and pontificators were filling the airwaves  yesterday with breathless conversations and speculations about the possibility of other countries following the path of Tunisia and Egypt. What about Algeria? Jordan? Saudi Arabia? Iran? Libya? What about central Africa?

Behind the scenes, the same conversations are being held at the State Department headquarters in DC and in US embassies around the world. “What is the reaction to Egypt in your country?” the folks at Foggy Bottom ask their embassies. “Is there any likelihood of your country being next?”

Diplomats love the orderly transitions of power found in stable democracies. When it comes to foreign elections, the party in power in DC might prefer one political party to come out on top (US Republicans might root for Germany’s Christian Democrats over the Social Democrats, for example), but the US takes a neutral stance in these election so as to be able to work with whoever wins. Generally speaking, the same holds true in reverse, and everyone releases statements of congratulations to the winners and praises the work of peaceful democratic institutions in action.

There’s also a certain amount of ease at Foggy Bottom when dealing with acknowledged enemies. Both Kennedy and Reagan used speeches in Berlin to contrast the freedom found in the west with the oppression found in the east. “We’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys, and we support freedom in those countries instead of oppression.” It’s not only easy to criticize these countries, but expected. In these situations, the diplomatic world is black and white, more or less, so if something unusual takes place, the diplomats from the Secretary of State on down to the lowest intern know which way to jump. Nelson Mandela gets released? Strike up the band. The Berlin Wall topples? Start the cheers!

But when the US decides to prop up a local strongman, it makes a bargain. “OK, we don’t like what you’re doing, but we’ll ignore that for the larger goal of your cooperation on something else.” There may be good short-term reasons for bargains like these, but the longer this kind of support goes on, the more trouble it may cause down the road when things boil over. The anger at the oppression of the Shah of Iran in the 1970s also was aimed at the US, because the victorious Iranian revolutionaries knew about the bargains the Shah made with the US.

These Faustian bargains — selling the freedom-loving soul of the United States for short-term advantage — come due when the strongman leaves the scene. If a new strongman deposes the old, perhaps a new bargain can be struck. But if a popular revolution takes down the strongman, all bets are off and the diplomats start to sweat. Again, see Iran in the 1970s.

Which brings us to this tweet from Jake Tapper:

Also worth keeping in mind: cant find anyone in O admin who thinks whatever comes next will be better for U.S. interests than Mubarak was

That’s truly frightening.

If there’s no one who thinks that in the long run, an Egyptian democracy won’t be a better ally to the US than an Egyptian strong man, then they are really living with blinders on.

I don’t know who Tapper talked with (and I suspect the tweet reflects Tapper’s mindset at least as much as those with whom he spoke), but I trust that there are at least some folks at Foggy Bottom, the DOD, and elsewhere who understand that the messiness of democracy is better for the longterm interests of the US than selling our souls yet another time to a strongman for a little short-term gain of some kind. When we make a Faustian bargain with someone like Mubarak, we’re not making it with “Egypt” but with the strongman who runs it.

In the short run, yes, things in Egypt will be messy and perhaps very messy as they sort out “whatever comes next” in their country. But to leap from that to “OMG this is an unqualified step backwards” is idiotic.

Autocrats in other nations have been watching Egypt closely, and also watching how the US reacted as events unfolded. They have been asking themselves “how will the US react if this spills over into my country?” To the extent that we’ve been supporting these people, US diplomats might want to take this opportunity to prod them to minimize the likelihood of any spillover by paying more attention to the rights of their own people. “If a revolution never happens, then you don’t have to worry about how we’ll react to it.”

Face it: getting out of a Faustian bargain is hard, but it’s easier to do before the revolution takes place and the bill comes due.