The US is stuck on the wrong side of a thorny problem. While it loudly champions the spread of democracy it quietly props up compliant despots. Think Egypt, think Saudi Arabia, think Kuwait and the Emirates. America has a rich legacy of this sort of thing in South and Central America, Southeast Asia, even Africa. Unfortunately it's a policy that rarely ends well.
South America today, once considered a gaggle of American fiefdoms, is breaking free of Washington's hold. The US once had much of Africa its for the taking but now it is being muscled out by China.
But a classic example of how American policy backfires is Palestine. The Palestinian people, offered a free choice between pro-American Fatah and pro-Palestinian Hamas, elected Hamas. So what do the US and Israel do? They ignore the election and carry on as though Fatah's Palestinian Authority was the legitimate voice of the Palestinians. They even smuggle arms to the PA for the violent overthrow of Hamas. Now al Jazeera has unveiled documents showing that the PA was willing to sell out the Palestinians to Israel on East Jerusalem and West Bank settlements. And the Americans wonder how Islamist movements gain popular support?
Awful as the Palestine problem is, the US and Israel are far more concerned today with the uprising in Cairo and Suez that threatens their compliant despot, Mubarak. Mubarak and his party have held onto power for 30-years largely thanks to fixed elections. For a government that claims to embrace democracy, Mubarak has been preparing to hand control over to his son who is even more hated and has reportedly fled the country.
The Egyptian protests face far greater hurdles than the apparently successful uprising earlier this week in Tunisia. Israel, which counts Mubarak as its strongest regional ally, has most to lose should he be topped. Israeli leaders, however, believe Mubarak's control over Egypt's security forces is stable and will enable him to put down any uprising.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that "we support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. And we urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media sites."
"We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic, and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."
The White House may actually hope that Mubarak will give in and implement reforms, something to placate the protesters, while retaining his hold on power. Some American diplomats, however, doubt Mubarak will budge.
America may have placed itself in a lose-lose situation on Egypt's troubles, one that may be decided more by its interests in Riyadh than in Cairo.