Commentary by Guy Farmer: Egypt - Knowing when to shut up

The ongoing crisis in Egypt came to a dramatic conclusion on Friday when autocratic President Hosni Mubarak finally faced reality and submitted his long overdue resignation. We can only hope that Mubarak's resignation will lead to what President Obama calls "an orderly transition to democracy" in the largest Arab country in the volatile Middle East.

All in all, I think President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have done a pretty good job of managing the regional foreign policy crisis created by popular uprisings in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, which harbors terrorists and provides most of our oil. I just wish they wouldn't talk so much.

As a retired diplomat I believe that one of the measures of effective diplomacy is knowing when to speak out publicly and when to shut up. Our leaders, including President Obama and Secretary Clinton, have historically had difficulty learning this important lesson, as we have seen in the daily headlines emanating from Cairo, Washington and beyond.

When I served in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s I learned that the U.S. can often be helpful behind the scenes in resolving national or regional disputes, but not when we publicly propose "Made in USA" solutions to these disputes. I think that's part of our problem in Afghanistan and Iraq and now, in Egypt, which is consistent with ex-Secretary of State Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn" theory of foreign policy: "You break it, you own it." We don't want to "own" any of those chaotic countries.

Two facts have complicated our relationship with Egypt: (1) it's the only nation in the region to sign a peace agreement with Israel, and (2) President Mubarak was a dictator (Sen. Reid was right) who stifled dissent and violated human rights while we paid him $1.5 billion per year to be our friend.

Egyptian protesters, mostly young people, didn't need Washington to tell them that they yearned for freedom and democracy, like all oppressed peoples. And when we tried to dictate conditions to the protesters, they rebelled just as we would do if another country tried to intervene in our internal affairs.

I thought syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer had it just right when he wrote that "the primary U.S. objective is to (discreetly) guide a transition period that gives secular democrats a chance. ... The U.S. should say very little in public and do everything behind the scenes to help the military ... guarantee what is still something of a long shot: Egyptian democracy." I couldn't agree more, even if a democratic government is less amenable to American foreign policy. After all, it's their country.

• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a retired diplomat.


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