President Barack Obama is having a hard time finding his voice on Egypt. So are a lot of political leaders, including Washington state's U.S. senators.
Calls placed early this week to the offices of Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, for comment on the president's handling of the crisis, produced no response. It's a little bit of a no-win situation for the Democrats, to be sure. The White House policy isn't that clear; it's hard to know what is the best strategy; and there are political risks in either leaning toward more forceful calls for democracy or lining up on the side of gradualism or even the status quo.
Still, the demonstrators keep calling for democracy, and the Mubarak regime is using brutal force, delay, and half-measures to avoid substantive change. Human Rights Watch says at least 300 deaths have occurred during the protests. Two other authoritarian regimes, China and Iran, have shown there are ways to deal with even large-scale demands for either creating democracy (China) or actually implementing democracy and human rights in what appears to be at least a modestly democratic framework of government (Iran).
As those cases show, U.S. and other democratic countries may not be able to sway the outcomes. But should that make U.S. politicians and the public hesitant to speak up for crowds demanding basic human rights? In Egypt's case, democracies' influence might be great enough to make a difference (and the Egyptian demonstrators are showing enough sophistication that they may succeed with or without serious moral support from abroad).
In terms of ducking a chance to speak up on Egypt, Murray and Cantwell are just part of the congressional crowd. Even Republicans have tried to keep the lid on any criticism of Obama, although the House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, R-Va., seemed to be setting the stage for a bit of distance from the White House on the issue by emphasizing Tuesday (Feb. 8) that the main goal is to “stop the spread of radical Islam.” If anything, that's a signal in favor of slow reform, not early democracy.
For both parties, there's also the reality that, unless the American public takes a real interest in seeing democracy have a chance in Egypt, it's safe to downplay the issue. If our senators think they don't need to say anything, it's a safe bet they have made a political assessment that even their supporters won't be offended by silence while Mubarak tries to extend his or his friends' stranglehold on power.
But if Egypt's valiant demonstrators are to end up with even the clear moral support of the country that likes to think of itself as the beacon of democracy, we all may need an infusion of some of that good old George W. Bush religion on the issue. Whether or not Bush could have delivered any effective support if a democracy movement had blossomed in Egypt is an open question. But one would like to think he would have known what to say, just as President Obama — elected as an agent of change — should be expected to know.
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