The Egypt-Colom­bia para­dox

The Washington Post Sunday - - OPINION - ROBERT KA­GAN Robert Ka­gan, a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, writes a monthly col­umn for The Post.

Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy, like any nation’s, can be hyp­o­crit­i­cal, self­ish, rid­dled with con­tra­dic­tions and dou­ble stan­dards. A pres­i­dent may pro­claim his com­mit­ment to democ­racy in soar­ing rhetoric one day and in the next turn a blind eye to re­pres­sive be­hav­ior by some govern­ment deemed im­por­tant toU.S. in­ter­ests. Squar­ing ideals with more tan­gi­ble in­ter­ests is a tricky busi­ness.

But some­times Amer­i­can pol­icy is as in­com­pre­hen­si­ble as it is re­gret­table, as dam­ag­ing to our in­ter­ests as to our ideals. Con­sider the case of two coun­tries: Colom­bia and Egypt. They’re both im­por­tant to Amer­i­can in­ter­ests. Colom­bia is on the front lines in the war against nar­cotics traf­fick­ers and nar­coter­ror­ists in Latin Amer­ica. It is a staunch pro-Amer­i­can ally in a re­gion threat­ened by Venezuela’s tyran­ni­cal Hugo Chavez and his var­i­ous cronies in Bo­livia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Egypt has been an im­por­tant player in the Arab world; it main­tains a cold but durable peace with Is­rael and is an ally against Iranandin the fight against rad­i­cal Is­lamic ter­ror­ism. Both Colom­bia and Egypt have re­ceived bil­lions of dol­lars inU.S. aid over the years.

Now for the dif­fer­ences. Colom­bia is a demo­cratic suc­cess story. Once plagued by guer­rilla in­sur­gen­cies and mur­der­ous paramil­i­taries, with wealthy drug lords con­trol­ling ma­jor cities, Colom­bia is in the midst of a po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic re­nais­sance. Un­der the bril­liant and en­light­ened demo­cratic lead­er­ship of Al­varo Uribe for eight years, the nar­coter­ror­ist FARC was beaten back, the drug car­tels of Cali and Medellin were all but de­stroyed, and a poor hu­man rights record be­gan to im­prove. Last sum­mer Colom­bia held free and fair pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, and al­ready, Juan Manuel Santos has demon­strated a re­mark­ably open and lib­eral ap­proach to gov­ern­ing. As The Post’s Juan Forero re­cently re­ported, Santos has pushed leg­is­la­tion to com­pen­sate vic­tims of Colom­bia’s long guer­rilla war, in­clud­ing those who suf­fered at the hands of se­cu­rity forces. He is try­ing to re­turn mil­lions of acres stolen from cam­pesinos by cor­rupt politi­cians. In a world where democ­racy is re­treat­ing and authoritarianism is ad­vanc­ing, Colom­bia stands out brightly against the trend.

Egypt, mean­while, is com­mit­ting na­tional sui­cide. The 82-year-old, in firm Hosni Mubarak is en­ter­ing his fourth decade as dic­ta­tor. He seems de­ter­mined to have him­self “re­elected” in elec­tions planned for Septem­ber or to hand power to his son Gamel. He has cracked down bru­tally on do­mes­tic dis­sent, ar­rest­ing, tor­tur­ing and mur­der­ing blog­gers. He has kept an “emer­gency” law in place through­out his reign. Re­cent par­lia­men­tary elec­tions were so heav­ily rigged that op­po­si­tion par­ties boy­cotted the runoffs and re­nounced the few seats they won. Af­ter the “Jas­mine Revo­lu­tion” in nearby Tu­nisia, the Egyp­tian pot is about to boil over. Yet Mubarak’s re­sponse has been to turn a deaf ear to per­sis­tent calls to free the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem and end hu­man rights abuses.

You might think that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion would re­spond ac­cord­ingly to these sit­u­a­tions. Last year, Deputy Sec­re­tary of State James Steinberg played a help­ful role en­cour­ag­ing Uribe to forgo an un­con­sti­tu­tional third term in of­fice. To­day, you might ex­pect the ad­min­is­tra­tion to be look­ing for ways to strengthen this Colom­bian suc­cess story. You would also ex­pect it to be mov­ing swiftly to get ahead of events in Egypt, to use its in­flu­ence to press Mubarak and his govern­ment to open the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem and avert im­pend­ing dis­as­ter.

Un­for­tu­nately, you would be mis­taken. There is only one thing the United States needs to do for Colom­bia right now: Pass the free-trade agree­ment ne­go­ti­ated and signed five years ago. The agree­ment has eco­nomic ben­e­fits for both na­tions. Fail­ure to rat­ify it this year would be a slap in the face to Colom­bia’s new pres­i­dent and the Colom­bian peo­ple. Re­ward­ing Colom­bians for their demo­cratic progress would seem to be a no-brainer. But the ad­min­is­tra­tion shows no in­cli­na­tion to push the agree­ment for­ward, even with the new free-trade-ori­ented Repub­li­can House sure to pass it. La­bor lead­ers, of course, op­pose all free-trade agree­ments. And some hu­man rights groups still want to pun­ish Colom­bia for abuses com­mit­ted years ago, and some in the ad­min­is­tra­tion agree.

In Egypt, the hu­man­rights abuses are not a decade old. They hap­pen ev­ery day. Is the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­act­ing any price for this be­hav­ior? Have the pres­i­dent and sec­re­tary of state made clear to Mubarak that if he doesn’t open up the po­lit­i­cal process to gen­uine com­pe­ti­tion, al­low in­ter­na­tional elec­tion mon­i­tors to en­sure the in­tegrity of the elec­toral process, lift the state of emer­gency and put an end to tor­ture and po­lice bru­tal­ity, he will not only de­stroy Egypt but also dam­age U.S.-Egyp­tian re­la­tions? Hil­lary Clin­ton gave a fine speech in Doha this month on the need for Arab gov­ern­ments to make room for civil so­ci­ety, but when she met with the Egyp­tian for­eign min­is­ter right be­fore the Novem­ber elec­tions she said not a word about Egyp­tian pol­i­tics. Pres­i­dent Obama has made fine state­ments about Amer­ica’s in­ter­est in sup­port­ing democ­racy around the world, but when he called Mubarak af­ter the erup­tion in Tu­nisia, he said noth­ing about the dangers of a sim­i­lar erup­tion in Egypt. The ad­min­is­tra­tion has made al­most no change in a decades­old pol­icy of cling­ing to Mubarak, de­spite the ev­i­dence that the man is steer­ing his coun­try to­ward dis­as­ter.

How to ex­plain these two wrong­headed poli­cies, both so at odds with Amer­i­can ideals and in­ter­ests? Don’t bother. Just hope the ad­min­is­tra­tion stum­bles to­ward the right an­swers be­fore it’s too late.

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