The Egypt Backlash

Is it a fantasy to believe that the United States can still promote democracy in non-democratic states?

Egypt blinked. On Thursday, Egypt's interim military government, known as the SCAF, decided to end the crisis it had provoked, or perhaps stumbled into, by raiding the offices of four American organizations which promote democracy abroad, and arresting sixteen U.S. citizens. Rather than risk the loss of $1.3 billion a year in military funding, as the U.S. Congress had threatened, Egypt allowed the Americans to leave. But the breach in U.S.-Egyptian relations will not be healed so easily, nor will the fears for Egypt's democratic future be put to rest. And the whole affair has raised a collateral worry: Is it a fantasy to believe that outsiders can promote democracy in non-democratic states?

Foreign groups have made a difference in the past. The National Democratic Institute (NDI), one of the organizations targeted in Egypt, first cut its teeth in Chile helping local NGOs defeat the dictator Augusto Pinochet in a 1986 referendum. Both quasi-governmental bodies like NDI, which receives federal funding, and private groups like George Soros's Open Society Institute, played an important role helping to organize democracy activists in the 2000 election that unseated Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and in the "color revolutions" in Ukraine in 2003 and Georgia in 2004.

But autocrats don't hold onto power by being stupid. Vladimir Putin in Russia and his brethren in Central Asia "were shaken by the color revolutions" as Larry Diamond, a leading democracy scholar at Stanford University, puts it. And they fought back. In 2006, the National Endowment of Democracy -- the parent body to NDI and to the International Republican Institute (IRI), also targeted in Egypt -- produced a report titled "The Backlash Against Democracy Assistance," which documented the growing efforts by autocratic states to block democracy assistance, including by expelling foreign organizations and harassing their staff. The color revolutions, Diamond points out, posed less of a threat to totalitarian regimes like those in Beijing or Havana  than they did to the more numerous states, like Russia or Venezuela, which practiced "authoritarian pluralism," in which elections offered the illusion of democratic choice without threatening the regime's control. International groups could help local activists seize these empty rituals to threaten or unseat authoritarian rulers. And this was where the backlash was concentrated.

Groups like NDI and IRI strenuously defend their "nonpartisan" status, but they are not, of course, impartial when it comes to democracy vs. non-democracy. It's hard to fathom why a sensible autocrat would tolerate them. Autocrats used to do so because they didn't know any better. Eduard Shevardnadze, the strongman of Georgia a decade ago, never knew what hit him, says Lincoln Mitchell, a scholar who worked with NDI in Georgia at the time. "Now these people get it." Mitchell argues that leaders often feel that accepting these groups is the price they have to pay to earn U.S. foreign aid, and to ensure a warm White House reception. But he sees the standoff in Egypt as evidence that rulers who seek to cling to power are concluding that the game may not be worth the candle, and thus that what was possible ten or 15 years ago is not possible today.

Autocrats like Putin wildly overestimate the capacity of democracy groups to make a difference, perhaps because they refuse to acknowledge that the real threat to their rule comes not from outsiders, but from the frustrated aspirations of their own citizens. They have adapted (and over-adapted) to the training, organizing, and polling work which groups like NDI and IRI do in the way that football defenses respond to a new wrinkle in an opponent's passing game. Some do thus more subtly than others. The SCAF, through incompetence or inattention, managed to arouse the entire U.S. Congress and jeopardize the bilateral relation with the United States. By contrast, in 2009, Ethiopia, another autocratic U.S. ally, passed a law permitting domestic organizations to receive foreign funding, so long as 90 percent of their budget comes from domestic donors -- few of whom would be foolish enough to vex the regime with such gifts. Likewise, in an earlier incarnation of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak used to allow the groups to operate while making it almost impossible for them to work with local activists.

There are, it's true, all sorts of distinctive and peculiar aspects to the current melodrama in Cairo, which was provoked by a minister left over from the Mubarak government who appeared to be furious that some American aid was going directly to Egyptian NGOs rather than passing through her ministry. The SCAF did not premeditate the confrontation with the United States. But Egypt's military and civilian leaders have resorted to the classic backlash playbook by appealing to nationalist outrage over alleged violations of sovereignty by the foreign groups, who are said to have carried out a hidden "U.S.-Israeli agenda." And the appeal has worked, at least well enough to distract attention from the real goal, which is to discredit both the foreign groups and the local actors whom they fund. Leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood endorsed the decision to detain the American officials; they later defended the right of local NGOs to organize, but did not call for the release of the foreigners. The SCAF's reversal under U.S. pressure unleashed a fresh wave of nationalist anger, which even included moderate figures like presidential contender Mohamed ElBaradei, who used Twitter to criticize "intervention in judiciary work."

Is the crisis in Egypt an aberration, or a harbinger? Daniel Brumberg, a scholar of Arab politics, points out that NDI is currently working in Yemen, Libya, Morocco, Jordan, and elsewhere in the region. "In terms of the Arab world," he says, "Egypt is an outlier. Overall, the U.S. organizations promoting democracy have had a pretty positive experience." That's an important point. Groups like NDI and IRI work in a vast range of countries; in the democratic ones, their work is generally non-controversial, and even in some non-democratic ones they are permitted to operate openly. But Lincoln Mitchell argues that democracy promotion in autocratic states tends to be inoffensive, and thus ineffective, as he noticed in a program in Azerbaijan which he evaluated for the U.S. government. "If you're doing work in Baku and the Aliyevs [the ruling family] aren't really upset, you're not doing a good job."

Mitchell thinks that the problem is inherently insoluble, and thus that the democracy promotion moment has come and gone. Another way of looking at it, though, is that the United States and other outside actors will have to decide how much they care about helping democratic forces in non-democratic states, and thus how much pressure they will impose on regimes to let those forces work. The Obama administration has gone to the mat in Egypt, where the regime was foolish enough to threaten American citizens, but not in Ethiopia. But the SCAF is still free to repress domestic groups -- a far greater threat to their continuing rule -- even though they've released the Americans. Larry Diamond argues that the United States must not let a disingenuous argument over sovereignty "trump a more basic international principle that people have a right to peacefully organize a civil society." He would like to see the Obama administration "push back very, very hard" against regimes that try to throttle democracy assistance, and do so in collaboration with other Western states and with the United Nations. International actors must be prepared at times to withhold goodies that matter to such rulers, whether in the form of aid or a diplomatic embrace.

There's no satisfying answer to this problem. Like it or not, the United States needs autocratic or semi-democratic  allies like Egypt and Ethiopia, not to mention Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan. It will not, and should not, put the right of NDI and IRI to operate freely at the top of the agenda with those states. With the worst of them, it's probably a waste of breath. And it's important to remain modest about what outsiders can accomplish even in ambiguous settings like today's Egypt and Azerbaijan. But the Arab Spring has decisively proved that people who have spent their whole lives under repressive rule are prepared to take risks, sometimes very grave ones, in order to gain a measure of dignity. And the United States has to be on the right side of that struggle. The Obama administration should take the crisis in Egypt as a wake-up call on the democracy backlash.

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Terms of Engagement

What Would John Adams Do About Iran?

It’s time for No. 44 to channel No. 2.

In the summer of 1798, U.S. President John Adams faced the gravest crisis of his time in office. Hostilities with the revolutionary, expansionist regime in France had been rising since his election, with French privateers seizing American merchant ships off the Atlantic coast. Adams's effort at diplomacy had backfired. The envoys he had sent to France had been met with extortionate and insulting demands; the publication of their dispatches, in what came to be known as the XYZ Affair, had provoked a firestorm of outrage and war fever, the likes of which the young republic had never before known. The public, led by Adams's own Federalist Party, was demanding a declaration of war. Adams himself had stoked those public passions. But now, in the summer, he hesitated between belligerence and yet more diplomacy.

The United States is now locked in conflict with Iran, another revolutionary, expansionist power. It is not yet summer 1798, but it's getting close. Today's president, Barack Obama, as firmly committed to the principle of engagement as Adams was to the principle of neutrality, is still giving diplomacy a chance. But the bugles are sounding. Israeli officials openly and urgently talk about the need for military action; Iran has apparently responded with a barrage of assassination attempts abroad; and polls show that a majority of Americans are prepared to use force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The president is under pressure, not from his own party, but from his adversaries, to issue an ultimatum to Iran. We may be only one stupid mistake away from the point where an attack becomes unavoidable.

Although Americans view themselves as slow to anger and reluctant to take up arms, the historical record argues otherwise. Adams was the first, but not the last, U.S. president, to feel the enormous pressure of the public clamor for war. Exactly 100 years after the XYZ Affair, President William McKinley cowered before the braying of the yellow press for war against Spain, the colonial master of the Philippines and Cuba. In one of the grossest public abuses of religious sentiment on record, McKinley famously claimed that he had fallen to his knees to ask divine guidance on the issue, heard God instruct him to liberate and Christianize the Filipinos, and "slept soundly." And half a century later, when the Soviets blockaded Berlin, President Harry Truman confronted demands that he force a military showdown. The Red Army was, of course, a much more formidable foe than Spain, and Truman wisely overruled his more bloody-minded generals -- as John F. Kennedy would later do during the Cuban missile crisis.

Adams himself was convinced that France threatened not only American commerce but American sovereignty; in a speech before a special session of Congress, he accused the French Directory of seeking "to separate the people of the United States from the government" in order to foment domestic upheaval. He created a new Department of the Navy and began building warships. In the aftermath of the XYZ Affair, he stood aside as Federalists whipped through Congress the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts, which were aimed at French nationals and sympathizers. In short, Adams behaved less like Obama than like George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Unlike Bush, however, Adams did not want war, and neither, it turned out, did France. Once Charles M. de Talleyrand, France's foreign minister, saw that the United States was preparing for war, he began authorizing intermediaries to tell influential Americans that France had no wish for hostilities and would accept a new envoy with none of the onerous conditions (including the payment of a douceur, or bribe, to himself) imposed on the previous mission. Adams began hearing from private citizens and diplomats, including his son John Quincy, then minister in Berlin, that France wanted peace. None of this was publicly known, and opinion remained no less inflamed. But Adams concluded he had to take a risk on Talleyrand's bona fides. In February 1799, he appointed his minister to the Netherlands as envoy to France. And in October 1800, the two sides signed a peace treaty known as the Convention of 1800.

Standing up to the war hawks was the most noble and selfless act of Adams's tenure. As historian William Stinchcombe concludes in The XYZ Affair, "in this respect alone his record as president must be judged as superior to that of many others." Adams believed he had signed his own political death warrant, and he may have been right: He lost considerable Federalist support and was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election. McKinley, by contrast, not only apparently slept like a baby but cruised to reelection. One moral of the story is thus that choosing diplomacy over a needless war may gain a president credit with posterity, but not with voters. If the temperature rises, Obama, too, may have to risk his political future in order to resist the call to arms.

There are other lessons of the so-called quasi-war with France more directly applicable to the current standoff with Iran. Despite its revolutionary domestic policy, France pursued its foreign interests as a rational state actor. Talleyrand was a wily schemer who laughed at ideological purity. One could not say the same, of course, for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- though the English-speaking foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, may be the closest thing to a moderate in the upper ranks of the Iranian leadership. Both, in any case, appear to be trying to maneuver Iran back from the brink. Salehi has recently said that Iran is prepared to rejoin talks with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) and has proposed doing so in Turkey. Salehi's bona fides are at least as suspect as Talleyrand's, but it behooves the United States and its allies to test them.

What is also clear is that it was not Obama's initial policy of engagement that has induced the change in Iranian behavior, but the vise of economic sanctions he and others have tightened on Iran -- and perhaps also the threat of war from Israel. Iran has been pursuing the logic of an expansionist foreign policy, just as France did; in both cases, revolutionary ideology essentially served to sanction classic self-aggrandizement. Iran would not be waylaid by deference and respect. Obama needed to make good his threats, as Adams needed to build his "wooden walls."

At the same time, Iran will not be deflected from pursuing its self-interest without some very significant inducement. In 1798, France needed to be reassured that the United States was not allying itself with England, as the French feared. Iran, at a minimum, must be reassured that it can retain its nuclear program, which has become a question of national identity. Obama administration officials might do well to read a recent report from the International Crisis Group that suggests that the P5+1 recognize Iran's right in principle to enrich uranium in exchange for Iran's acceptance of stringent safeguards on and intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities. The West would begin to relax sanctions as Iran complied with this demand as well as other measures designed to eliminate its supply of highly enriched uranium. Beyond that, the report proposes, Washington must be prepared to discuss the whole range of regional issues, including Afghanistan and Iraq, in which Tehran has an interest. If war would be a calamity, as Obama appears to think, then there can be no excuse for halfhearted diplomacy.

Iran may very well reject these terms. By 1798, France was already a status quo power; Iran, remarkably, remains a deeply ideological force even 30 years after the revolution, and it continues to play a disruptive role in world affairs. Conciliation itself could violate the leadership's ideology or political interests -- Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, might carry out his power struggle with Ahmadinejad by blocking any attempt at negotiation. It may be, in short, that Iran will stop at nothing to reach at least the capacity to build a bomb. And then Obama or his successor will have to choose, not between war and diplomacy, but between war and containment. And in that case, it will take much more political courage to stick to a policy of patience and restraint.