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Jimmy Carter’s revolution

February 10th, 2011

How important is the promotion of democracy to U.S. foreign policy?

To many Americans, this nation’s main mission is to promote freedom and democracy throughout the world. And as revolution takes hold in Egypt, and protests continue to plague Jordan, Americans have been annoyingly reminded that the United States is thoroughly enmeshed in the business of propping up many of the world’s dictators for stability’s sake.

Americans, however, aren’t the only ones that are frustrated. People all over the world constantly criticize the United States for its hypocritical foreign policy.

But here’s the kicker: our support of the authoritarian Egyptian regime is actually what paved the way for Egyptians to carry out their revolution.

If you read my last column, you’ll remember that Egypt used to be the juggernaut of the Arab world. As the most populous and powerful Arab country, it went to war against neighboring Israel four times in a span of thirty years. Even though it had democratic institutions, Egyptian leaders used the Israeli threat to declare a permanent state of emergency, which allowed them to concentrate power in the executive branch by usurping power from the legislative and judicial branches. Meanwhile, the Egyptian people were united in their opposition to Israel.

An Egyptian boy waves his national flag as anti-government protesters demonstrate in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, on Feb. 8. (AP)

However, in 1979, Egypt became the first Arab country to make peace with Israel after it signed a treaty negotiated by President Jimmy Carter. Although the treaty would grant the Egyptian regime some $2 billion every year in U.S. economic and military support, it also sowed the seeds of the current revolution. By eliminating the Israeli threat, it became harder for Egyptian leaders to legitimate a “state of emergency” and hoard political power. It also shifted the Egyptian people’s focus from external threats to internal matters.

Three decades later, here we are. Whether intended or not, the peace established by Jimmy Carter has encouraged the Egyptian people to scrutinize their political leaders and call for change.

Sure, it may have taken awhile. But as we learned from the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq under President George W. Bush, democracy is not something that can be easily forced onto another state. The nation building required to impose democracy on a foreign land takes years, perhaps even decades, and comes at an enormous cost in both money and human lives.

Economic sanctions can’t do the trick either. Under the strictest of sanctions, authoritarian leaders from Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe to North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il to Myanmar’s Than Shwe have still managed to cling to power for decades.

The only way meaningful democratic change can come about, it seems, is if it comes from within. Therefore, if the United States really wants democracy to spread, it must promote regional stability when possible, avoid unnecessarily threatening authoritarian states with talk of invasion or sanctions and – perhaps most importantly – have patience.