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Egypt's turmoil as a lesson in humility

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Sunday, February 6, 2011

In light of the history-shaking events on the streets of Cairo, it's not surprising that a truly remarkable development slipped through the news cycle with barely a nod.

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On a unanimous voice vote last Thursday, the Senate passed a resolution co-sponsored by John Kerry and John McCain urging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to hand power over to a caretaker government as part of a peaceful transition to democracy.

It's easy to be cynical about this as mere feel-good politics. The president, not the Senate, executes foreign policy, and declaring a goal is far easier than bringing it about. Yet this should not distract from how American responses to events in Egypt have been as different as one can imagine from our responses to almost every other issue.

Note that while Kerry and McCain were doing their bipartisan work, Republicans in Congress and conservative judges were trying to scrap a health-care law that was the product of two years of legislative struggle and debate.

Yes, there was a teensy bipartisan moment when the Senate agreed to repeal certain IRS reporting requirements in the law that both parties decided were too onerous. But that was an exception to the rule of ideology, partisanship and posturing on health care.

We should be having a continuing dialogue over how we can get health insurance most efficiently to all Americans and how last year's law could be improved. Instead, Republicans would get rid of what we have without putting anything in its place.

Similarly, there was large-scale bluster on the budget deficit. Republican House leaders proposed $32 billion in cuts in domestic programs over the next few months. The amount is derisory in light of the size of our country's long-term fiscal problem. Yet because they are concentrated on a limited pool of domestic programs, these reductions could cause enormous difficulties in the basic operations of government.

But as long as conservative ideologues refuse to acknowledge that fiscal balance will require tax increases as well as spending discipline, there can be no rational conversation on how to move forward.

What has made the Egypt debate different? Beyond the structural issues, it's worth noting that Kerry and McCain are both patriots who served their country in war and have built strong personal bonds despite their philosophical differences. Such personal ties are increasingly rare in Congress.

And events in Egypt have moved too fast for ideological lines to harden. Both conservatives and liberals are divided between human rights advocates who think the United States should long ago have distanced itself from Mubarak's regime and realists who worry that a post-Mubarak government might be hostile to American interests.

By reflecting both realist and democratic impulses - or, in the eyes of the less charitable, straddling them - the Obama administration has gradually been building a consensus behind the idea that backing Egypt's democratic forces is the most realistic thing to do, since Mubarak's days are numbered. That accord was embodied in the Kerry-McCain resolution.

There has also been a certain humility in both parties about the meaning of the Egyptian rebellion. There is at least some acceptance of the limits of the United States' ability to influence events, and also a candid acknowledgement that no one really knows where this uprising will lead. For once, politicians on both sides are being straight with one another and with the country about how a particular situation presents us with a mix of opportunities and dangers.

And notice how silent Tea Party-oriented politicians have been about all this. They have nothing to say because their sweeping anti-government ideology - focused more on the America they imagine existed in 1787 than on the world that actually exists in 2011 - offers no guidance as to what a global power should do in a circumstance of this sort. (I'd exempt from this critique those libertarians who really are principled noninterventionists, even if I have differences with their view.)

Will we learn lessons from all this about the limits of ideology, the value of intellectual humility and the fact that political choices are hard because the world is neither as simple nor as compliant with our wishes as we would like it to be? What has happened over the last decade gives little ground for such hopes. Our Egypt moment should be a model. It will more likely be an interlude.

ejdionne@washpost.com


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