In 1899, British novelist and poet Rudyard Kipling wrote an infamous and now controversial poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” which spoke about the burden of western European civilizations to police and guide those countries inhabited and lead by persons of color until they could adopt Western ideals and govern themselves. In the poem, delivered to then-U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, Kipling urged the United States to take up the burden in place of Europeans who had sheltered it in previous decades. In short, the poem made the case for imperialism and excused colonialism.
Fast forward 112 years to 2011, colonialism and imperialism – at least in those historic terms – are no longer, and the head of the United States sheltering the ‘White man’s burden’ is not White. Yet, as the leader of the “free world” he is being asked to take a position on Egypt and help guide the future of a nation of 77 million people.
President Obama appears to be caught in a precarious position because the stability of Egypt is crucial to American interests. Egypt is the only Arab nation to have a peace treaty with Israel. It has an alliance with the United States and is key to identifying Islamic extremists in the Middle East and Northern Africa and provides intelligence to our government. Egypt also exports oil, and the ongoing unrest in the nation could have an impact on oil production in that region, which, in turn, would have a domino effect on gas prices here in America. Indeed, on the first day of the unrest, world stock exchanges plummeted, partially in fear of what ripple effect the turbulence in Egypt would have on surrounding nations.
Certainly, President Obama may not have anticipated the amount of violence, or ensuing havoc, that exploded in the hours following his release of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s announcement that he would not seek another term in office, but would not step down until September. Obama’s call for calm and a peaceful transition may have fallen on deaf ears, and is not enough for the anxious, agitated and impassioned people of Egypt.
No matter how the U.S. comes out in the end and what side of the struggle it sides with, the president will face blame from his harshest critics for being too cautious and not acting fast enough. He will be scorned for thinking too much and being too methodical in deciding what approach to take. Thoughtfulness is a characteristic you want from your professor grading your midterm, not necessarily from the leader of the free world who has to make a ride or die decision in the heat of the moment.
It’s a gamble because he certainly does not want to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors, who have been confronted with similar situations. Who knows what form of regime will replace Mubarak’s. The optimists predict that the old governance model, buoyed by cronyism, nepotism, and clan-based loyalty, will be replaced by a more democratic system of government lead by the youth, investors, and idealists. If the pro-Mubarak forces remain vigilant after Mubarak himself steps down, however, there could be longer periods of unrest. While it appears doubtful that a similar regime would replace the outgoing one, there is no guarantee that the impending elections this fall will be fair and free from ballot-tampering and fraud. If a corrupt regime indeed follows Mubarak’s, the stability of that region of the world could be in jeopardy forever.
The extent to which President Obama could be blamed if all this comes to pass depends on whether or not the World still believes the United States has that “burden” of being the savior to democracy for the entire world? One editorial, Will Obama Lose Egypt?, suggests that the impetus for Egypt’s unrest was Obama’s speech in the North African country during his first visit to the Muslim World last year, and an alleged meeting with Mubarak opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood, a group once linked to terrorists but in recent years has been more of social services organization than anything else. The piece has also energized Obama’s harshest opponents who say Obama is at jeopardy of duplicating Jimmy Carter’s mistake of embracing Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who replaced the Shah of Iran’s tyrannical reign in the 1970s, and eventually became an even more sinister and ruthless leader than the Shah.
But to what extent is a sovereign and independent nation, with its own system of government, albeit a failing one, ours to lose in the first place?
There is no doubt, however, that many Egyptians are looking for guidance and acceptance from the United States. One of the more obvious and noteworthy indicators is the massive banner photographed by photojournalists and broadcast to the entire world that read, “Yes We Can Too.”