Should the people of a given country be allowed to vote in free and fair elections, even if the people they elect are fundamentally hostile to the United States?
That is the great question which is facing America today, as protests have toppled the leader of Tunisia and now threaten the presidency of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
Almost everybody agrees that Mr. Mubarak is a dictator who does not respect human rights or promote democracy. He is a typical example of the authoritarian leader, whose values are fundamentally at odds with those of the United States. It is quite conceivable that the current protests will end in bloodshed, with the military firing upon civilians in a Bloody Sunday-style massacre.
In a perfect world, a peaceful revolution would topple Mr. Mubarak and install a new democratic government. Said government would be moderate, friendly to the West, and firmly against Islamic extremism.
Unfortunately, the truth is that Mr. Mubarak’s strongest political opponents are the Muslim Brotherhood, a proudly Islamist movement with broad popular support. If the protests in Egypt succeed in toppling the dictator, the most likely situation is the formation (through free and fair elections) of an Islamist government hostile to the United States.
Therein lies America’s dilemma – betray its ideals and support an “ally,” or keep its ideals and allow an anti-American government to take power.
Historically, the United States has chosen the former option. During the Cold War, dictators were always perceived as better than popularly elected Communist governments. Today replace Communism with Islamism, and one gets the same idea.
Yet think about this: why do the people of Egypt so dislike the United States? Why would they most likely elect, if given a choice, an anti-American government?
The answer, of course, is because the United States keeps on supporting dictators like Mr. Mubarak! In fact, that is why Osama bin Laden attacked the United States – because it continues allying with dictators in the Middle East, in direct contradiction of its democratic values.
Why does the United States support these dictators? Because it knows free democratic elections will result in anti-American governments. Why would elections result in anti-American governments? Because the United States keeps on supporting dictators who oppress the people. And on and on the cycle goes.
The problem is that dictators may not stay in power forever. A U.S.-supported dictator, if unpopular enough, may fall. Iran and Vietnam are just two examples in which this happened. Today Iran is a determined foe of the United States. On the other hand, the communist government in Vietnam is quite friendly to America.
In the short term supporting friendly dictators might benefit American interests. In the long run, however, supporting those who oppress their people probably does more harm than good to America – and more importantly, to the cause of freedom and democracy.