Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Stephen Walt on the Egyptian revolution and American policy toward it

Über-Realist foreign policy expert Stephen Walt looks at US policy toward Egypt in Is Obama wobbling on democracy for Egypt? Foreign Affairs 02/06/2011. Some of the content has been overtaken by events. But he gives a useful and timely explanation about why revolutions seem (especially) from the outside to break out suddenly:

President Obama is reportedly angry with the U.S. intelligence agencies for failing to anticipate the upheavals in Tunisia or Egypt. His irritation is silly, because there's a well-founded social science literature (by Timur Kuran, Susanne Lohmann, and Marc Granovetter, among others) explaining why it is nearly impossible to predict the onset of a revolutionary upheaval. You can identify countries where the government is unpopular or illegitimate, and thus were a rebellion might occur, but that doesn't tell you if or when a popular uprising of the sort we have been watching will occur.

As I explained before, the reason is because an individual's willingness to rebel is essentially private information, and nobody is going to tell you what they really think in an authoritarian society. Furthermore, an individual's willingness to march openly against the regime depends on what he or she thinks others will do, and that cannot be ascertained in advance either. But when conditions are right and some triggering event occurs (which can be almost anything), then you can get a rapid and unexpected revolutionary cascade, as more and more people decide that it is safe to express their previously-concealed resentment and that doing so is likely to succeed. [my emphasis]
It's been a long-time fault of American foreign policy that it has dealt clumsily and often very badly with revolutionary situations affecting American policy in significant ways, the Vietnam War being the most spectacular of those failures.

Walt cautions the Obama Administration of repeating a mistake like that of the Cheney-Bush Administration in pushing for elections in Gaza in 2006 and then completely rejecting the legitimacy of the results when Hamas unexpectedly won:

Are we now going to keep our thumb discreetly on the scale in Egypt, to make sure that a post-Mubarak government continues to dance to Washington's tune? When will Washington learn that you cannot simultaneously proclaim your commitment to democracy and freedom and then insist on dictating who is allowed to win?
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