In November 1979, Georgetown Professor and Democratic activist Jeane Kirkpatrick published a now-famous essay called “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” An an ardent anti-Communist, Kirkpatrick had been suspicious of Jimmy Carter. By 1979, she was in full revolt. The article’s premise was that whenever faced with a choice between undemocratic but relatively benign forces and ideologically committed totalitarian, anti-American forces, the Carter administration always chose the latter.
Citing Carter’s actions involving Iran and Nicaragua in particular, Kirkpatrick eviscerated him for “actively collaborat[ing] in the replacement of moderate autocrats friendly to American interests with less friendly autocrats of extremist persuasion.” Kirkpatrick found a new friend in Ronald Regan, who loved her article, and she became Reagan’s Ambassador to the United Nations. Her writing has new relevance today, considering the Obama administration’s actions in Egypt.
While there has been understandable uncertainty within the Obama Administration over what to do in Egypt, its recent actions suggest either a remarkably naïve view of events, or a bizarre sympathy for totalitarian forces. The Obama Administration’s condemnation of the military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, on the surface, is understandable. Nobody likes to see dead bodies, particularly those of civilians. After previously expressing hope that the military ouster of Mohammad Morsi would lead to a chance at reconciliation, Obama condemned the military, saying “We’ve seen a more dangerous path taken, through arbitrary arrests, a broad crackdown on Mr. Morsi’s associations and supporters and now, tragically, violence that’s taken the lives of hundreds of people and wounded thousands more.”
Yet Obama’s call wasn’t heeded by the Egyptians. It was completely ignored. Egypt’s interior minister did not back down, and continued to authorize the military to fire upon any Morsi supporters who were involved in attacking churches or government buildings.
If that last sentence made you do a double-take, you’re thinking clearly. Scores of churches have been burned and many Copts killed. Morsi’s government barely bothered to conceal its oppression of religious minorities when it held power, particularly against the sizable Coptic population, nor has the Muslim Brotherhood ever been above violence. The bloodshed may be horrifying, but it’s important to remember why it is happening. Morsi may have been democratically elected — although there are numerous, largely unreported, examples of electoral corruption — but he quickly went about removing all obstacles to total power, setting up a regime similar to former President Hosni Mubarak with a more totalitarian Islamic bent. The military, realizing that Morsi no longer had popular support, if he ever had it, removed him before he could permanently impose his radical vision of Islamic governance on all Egyptians.
Now out of power and discredited, the Brotherhood is resorting to violence of the same kind that is frequently employed by Palestinian terrorists: namely, commit violent atrocities against innocent opponents, mostly Coptic Christians in this case, and when that atrocity is met with a response, claim victimhood loudly to a sympathetic press. Next, use the sympathy of the international community to weaken your opposition. You would think Obama would recognize such tactics, since they are widespread in the Middle East.
The Egyptian military, on the other hand, are no one’s idea of Jeffersonian Democrats, and if they start eradicating Morsi supporters in a vendetta, they deserve condemnation. But they have shown concern for the rights of minorities, appearing with Coptic Pope Tawdros II, moderate Sunni cleric Ahmed el-Tayeb, and secular liberal leader Mohamed ElBaradei, when they announced Morsi’s ouster, and defending them against attacks by the Brotherhood now.
What you see, throughout this unfortunate chain of events, is the Obama Administration consistently backing the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. Obama helped push Mubarak out in the first place and pushed for elections before anybody could realistically counter the Brotherhood’s organization. He tepidly supported Morsi’s ouster; realizing Morsi had lost popular support, until the inevitable conflict, when he began to condemn the military. If viewed in isolation, perhaps you could chock Obama’s actions up to simple mistakes in a complex situation. But confusion might explain Egypt alone; it cannot explain it in light of the Obama Administration’s actions in other countries.
Another egregious example of Obama’s double standard concerns Honduras early in his first term. When Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, an ally of Hugo Chavez, illegally maneuvered to stay in power past his term, and was removed by both the Honduran Supreme Court as well as the legislature, both controlled by his own party, the Obama Administration insisted on calling it a coup in spite significant legal evidence to the contrary, and insisted on his return to power. It’s enough to remind you of Carter’s support of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas.
There are several other examples I could cite, from the effect of the “reset” with Russia that damaged democratic countries like Poland and Ukraine, to his prevarication in Syria until authentically liberal elements had been marginalized by radicals. But the bottom line is that Obama remains someone who is uncomfortable with the idea of American power. He sees it as a destabilizing influence on the “authentic” will of other countries. But in countries where ruthless ideologues hold significant power, the will of the people is essentially impossible to discern.
One can recognize the limits of American power without encouraging those who oppose American values. We’re still paying the price for Carter’s double standards in Iran, Afghanistan, and even Nicaragua. What is the price for Obama’s? I’m not sure, but nearly 35 years later, Kirkpatrick’s lessons still loom large.