February 11, 2011

On Mubarak, a choice between credibility or legitimacy

The Obama administration is in an awkward situation. By not clearly calling for Mubarak's rotted regime to vacate the national institutions and hand over power to a genuine transition government, the United States is rapidly losing credibility both in the region and back at home. But to step in and force an outcome could instantly undermine the legitimacy of our own global role, much as the U.S. invasion of Iraq did under George W. Bush. 

I have been blogging in recent weeks in support of democracy in Tunisia, and now in Egypt (though Tunisia already needs a booster shot). So it is with disappointment (but not yet resignation) that I note: Hosni Mubarak's status under international law has not changed since the "January 25" protests started. He has been an autocratic leader with shaky legitimacy for three decades. Cracking down on peaceful protesters and news media should carry consequences, but what if President Obama had spontaneously called last year for an orderly and immediate transition to democracy in Egypt? Did we need the Tahrir events to know he has no popular mandate? And hadn't he already scheduled elections for September 2011?

By what right in international law can the United States suddenly step in? Convenience and opportunity are incomplete responses. Waiting for massive bloodshed provides a casus belli, but that's morally indefensible. And it's already arguable that Mubarak's continued presence contradicts his claim to be a force of "stability" for his nation.

By intervening to unseat a dutiful American ally, however corrupt and despotic, the United States also risks losing credibility among dozens of allies and clients around the world, specifically those who make Mubarak look enlightened and urbane by comparison. Will America ditch them as soon as their own people rise up, or some better catch rides through town? Remember, Saddam was once our man, too.

Of course, "stepping in" does not require smart bombs and embargoes. The United States has a range of public and discreet tools at its disposable. But it will be seen as interference either way, and don't expect China to allow the United Nations Security Council to authorize any action against a kindred, undemocratic regime.

I hope the Administration finds its way to doing the right thing, and soon, regardless of the uncertain risks and definite costs. In the long run, we shall gain both credibility and legitimacy.

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