Beyond 'American-backed' foreign policy

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Saturday, February 5, 2011;

"American-backed." We hear those words over and over from reporters, politicians and policy analysts. They are like an epithet, carrying an insidious and self-important ring in reference to governments and events in the Third World, as if American support is somehow the deciding factor in whatever happens to be the latest trouble.

Until Tuesday, when President Obama reportedly asked him to step down, the words stuck like flypaper to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak; he was the "American-backed" ally. Or we read about the American-backed governments in Jordan or Tunisia. Last year, it was the ones in Honduras and Colombia.

The idea isn't technically wrong - and I, too, have pointed out U.S.-supported programs or politicians - but the sense behind them as a shorthand definition is an anachronistic holdover from the Cold War that both exaggerates our influence and often wrongly conflates our relationship with our endorsement. It subtly imposes a U.S. frame on Third World events that is dangerous - for American policy and for the affected countries.

What the unfolding events in Egypt show, as events have shown in so many other Third World crises since late in the Cold War, is that short of military invasion, American influence is limited and often irrelevant.

Roughly $2 billion a year in aid since 1979 has bought us the ear of the Egyptian military and Mubarak, a supposed ally of five American presidents since taking office in 1981. But a willingness to take calls from the U.S. president goes only so far: Egyptian leaders will decide what to do next based on their own self-interest, not ours. Witness their willingness to foment violence in the streets.

Meanwhile, Americans on the left and right speak as though the success or collapse of democracy in Egypt and other Third World countries depends on us. It's as if the people in those countries are children and we are still the leader of the "bloc."

In the New York Times this week, conservative columnist David Brooks bemoaned that "the United States usually gets everything wrong" and that we are stepping on Egyptians' "dignity," while liberal Maureen Dowd accused the administration of trying "to stanch the uncontrolled surge of democracy in the Arab world."

One wonders what protests they were watching. In Cairo, no one was chanting "Down with America." It seems clear to Egyptians that Obama, by publicly nudging Mubarak to go, is not the enemy.

Most people in the developing world - Asians, Latin Americans, Africans and Arabs - understand diplomatic manners; that a government represents a country; and that a relationship is not an endorsement. It is Americans who are obsessed with black-and-white declarations and "transparency" in everything.

One of the great dangers in our internal framing, moreover, is that foreign analysts and journalists pick it up and repeat the exaggeration of our influence, raising expectations and criticism abroad. Al-Jazeera often does this, seeing American conspiracies everywhere. This reflects the global influence of U.S. journalism and Washington as a media center more than it reflects fact.

This is not to say that the United States doesn't have influence and that it hasn't made mistakes in publicly endorsing autocrats; particularly during the Cold War, we backed a number of Latin American juntas and sent in the Marines more than once. But in the most excusable of cases, the stakes were seen as existential: life or death with the Soviet Union.

Today, which developing countries aren't American "allies"? Cuba, Iran, Burma. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela is a pain, but that nation is one of our largest oil partners. In other words, only a handful of countries aren't "American-backed" in some way.

All this suggests two things. First, reporters and analysts, in addition to considering the U.S. angle, should reframe their analysis of Third World events to put the focus on the local actors and local motives. Second, policymakers have to be sophisticated enough in their statements to separate a relationship with a government from political endorsement of it.

Egypt is a good example. In the past week, the administration and the Republican leadership have displayed remarkable restraint in calibrating comments to support the emergence of a legitimate popular will in Egypt without inflaming chaos. As a result, the American government is not in any danger of being "on the wrong side of history" as so many news reports breathlessly worry.

Now that's news. But the bigger success, one hopes, will be Egypt's.

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