Maybe it’s time we shut up.
We are constantly telling the Egyptians and the Tunisians, the Ukrainians and the Georgians, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Pakistanis and the Sri Lankans, how to behave. If I missed your country, just wait.
And what it boils down to is this: we want them to behave like us. Of course it is an edited version of us, minus our own corruption, poverty, crime, pollution and big money politics.
But this is the 21st Century and they know all about us. They listen to the BBC in Arabic and the somewhat exaggerated version of Western life in Al Jazeera. What they unfortunately lack in the Middle East today is the Arabic version of the Voice of America.
Guess what folks — in the middle of the greatest crisis in the Arab-Western relations following 9/11, the U.S. government stopped funding VOA in Arabic. Instead, the State Department decided to fund a Western pop music station — Radio Sawa — which gave a few news bulletins on the hour.
So we added cultural imperialism to the disrespect of eliminating one of the Arab world’s most trusted media — VOA in Arabic.
Nevertheless, Arab and other audiences have enough information from watching our cop shows and spy thrillers and Al Jazeera to know that while we preach one thing to them, we practice a troubled democracy in which the average person has as little power over the direction of society as the average Egyptian.
It is time for the United States to practice some of the humility that sounds so good on paper — added to the “talking points” we give to substitute for our diplomat’s ability to speak openly. Our Secretary of State says in one breath that it is up to the Tunisians and the Egyptians to decide for themselves what kind of government they will have. In the next breath, we tell them their leader Hosni Mubarak must step down “now.”
And when the Egyptians in the street take our urgings at face value, demanding the rights that the United States says they must have “now”, who will stand beside them when the knock comes on the door and the mukhabarat secret police drags them away to be beaten?
We have seen too many of these well-meaning efforts to reshape the world in our own self-glorified image.
What happened back in 1991 when we urged the Kurds and the Shia to rebel against Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War? We did nothing while he shot them down by the thousand.
What happened in 1988 after the U.S. State Department urged Burmese students to seize their liberty? The army shot 3,000 of them dead in the street. And not just any street. The street in front of the American Embassy in Rangoon.
And remember the Hungarians in 1956? We cheered them on as they died by the hundreds in front of Soviet tanks. More recently we backed losing strugglers for democratic change in Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Belarus, Ivory Coast, and Zimbabwe.
A colleague recently told me of a young man who spend a year as a venture capital advisor in Egypt. At the end, he said that “everyone there hates us.” Nationalism is the predictable outgrowth of meddling by a huge, fat power such as America — even though it was well-meaning.
A study of Egyptian attitudes towards the massive $70 billion in U.S. civilian and military aid since the Camp David accord in 1979 showed that most did not know of any benefit from the aid. When informed the aid had built schools, clinics, sewers, agribusinesses, their response was: 1. aid was stolen by their government; 2. it is a humiliation to receive such aid; 3. the aid buys Egyptian compliance with the Israeli peace treaty, war on terror and other U.S. priorities.
So we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.
It is time to reduce the American footprint and mouth print in the wide world. We can do more for developing countries with authoritarian rulers by opening our country to trade, commerce, student exchanges and media without the hectoring tone of official diplomacy.
The most damaging phrase I recall in more than 20 years covering the State Department for a variety of newspapers is: “they know what they have to do.” As if we have given them an assignment in school and we aren’t even going to explain it — it is so obvious.
There is nothing wrong with voicing support and admiration to the brave, spirited and decent people demonstrating for democracy in Tahrir Square. Nor is there anything wrong with counseling Egyptian military and civilian leaders to take the high path of non-violence and to at least listen to the voices calling for change.
But we must stop threatening to cut off assistance unless they do what we tell them to do. If these countries are worthy of our trust and capable of operating a democracy — with all its inflamed passions, threats, tensions, confrontations and struggles — then we must step back and let them craft a bond between society and its power points that is suitable for them.
What would it be like if parents decided for every young man or woman how to move from high school to college, a job, a marriage, parenthood and old age. All the elements of choice and risk and courage that mark the inspirations of civilization would be tamped down.
Let the United States not become the nanny power, acting without invitation as the international arbiter of political actions.
Maybe we need to withdraw militarily from Iraq and Afghanistan, disengage from Pakistan’s military and intelligence mayhem, and let our relations with the world dwindle to be a trusted friend ready to help out when asked.
As Voltaire wrote so thoughtfully at the end Candide — after his protagonist had witnessed the terrible events of the world such as the Lisbon earthquake — “il faut cultivar son jardin.” One must cultivate one’s own garden.
We need to improve the democracy we have at home and offer the world through trade and non-political interactions such as ping pong diplomacy that we all struggle together to evolve as human societies and — if we want — we can walk along that difficult but rewarding road together as equals.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.