The Egypt-Colombia dichotomy

Sunday, January 23, 2011

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 to U.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 Iran and in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism. Both Colombia and Egypt have received billions of dollars in U.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, infirm 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 human rights 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 decades-old 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.

Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes a monthly column for The Post.

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