Last week, protests in Egypt filled the headlines of mainstream newspapers and provided political pundits with more talking points than they could ever have hoped for. Over and over again, so-called experts and laymen alike asked the question, “What should [insert major political figure/state/international organization] do in Egypt?” In the coming days, the same will likely be true in reference to the protests in Bahrain, Yemen, Iran and other nations across the Middle East that now find themselves in a state of upheaval.
Unfortunately, no matter what name is inserted in the question, or which state the speaker is referring to, the answer is the only thing that won’t change. In short, the most educated response one can give is that it depends.
Politics is not a one-way street, despite what the majority of people would like to believe. At a university like Georgetown, one would think that the overarching concept of cura personalis, and its descendent concept of individual perspective, would be applied to states and international organizations as well as individuals. Unfortunately, in my not quite two years here, I have yet to find such a concept examined in depth. Yes, professors admit that the answer depends on the current situation, and yes, they do discuss the limitations of human foresight that were once referred to as the fog of war, but the link between policy and morality is unfortunately left untouched in the classroom.
A skeptical reader might question my use of the term morality. However, that’s just what we do when we insert the word “should” into the question I posed before. “Should” implies rational assessment, but reason can only take us so far. At some point, our own background, beliefs and morals play into our assessment of which course of action a political actor should take. In short, it’s not all about the facts.
This of course leads to countless issues on a micro and macro level. Take Egypt for example. I think that President Obama should have taken a more supportive stance in favor of the opposition movement at the onset of the crisis. I think the same is true ad infinitum for protests in favor of democratic elections the world over — Iran in June of 2009 jumps immediately to mind. Quite frankly, I find it slightly hypocritical for a country born out of civil disobedience to support a tyrannical ruler for the sake of international stability. King George III would likely have supported Hosni Mubarak for exactly the same reasons heads of state around the world did until late last week.
Unfortunately, what I think American diplomats and politicians should have done is, in the end, limited to my morals and my perspective on international affairs. There is truly no single correct answer to any question. To paraphrase a cliche from Daniel Defoe, nothing is certain but death and taxes.
In tumultuous political times, such as those the Arab world currently finds itself embroiled in, this is an important thing to remember. The United States is still the predominant power on the international stage, but very few crises, big or small, have a clear-cut answer. In the end, it depends. Unfortunately, when time is of the essence we generally need it the most, and because of this the United States can sometimes look indecisive when making major policy choices. This is not a sign of American weakness, but rather a sign of our commitment to examining all sides of the problem. When it really does depend on the circumstances, the underlying causes and the individual moral standards of the actor pushing the button, these things take time.
This is not an indictment of the slow moving decision making processes of the American bureaucracy. It is rather a soft scolding of the way the mainstream media — both television and print — handles international crises. There is no right answer, and there never will be.
Andrew Mullikin is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at [email protected]. BEHIND THE WIRE appears every other Thursday.
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