As the Middle East “roils” with street protests against authoritarian leaders in Yemen and Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton “pivots” - a hilarious President Obama-esque word that means to abandon one policy (e.g., pragmatism in the Arab world) and embrace its polar opposite (e.g.. human rights and democracy).
Actually, “pivots” is far too mild a term - Mrs. Clinton is changing her mind so fast and doing more pirouettes than Natalie Portman in “Black Swan,” making any foreign policy watcher dizzy in trying to figure out exactly what the Obama administration stands for. Will she save her career, end up like the deranged Miss Portman in the last scene, or worse, join Mr. Obama with the deer-in-the-headlights look of former President Carter as he went through his Iran moment in 1979 - no doubt a thought that is bringing cold sweats to the White House as it contemplates 2012.
When you can’t decide whether to hope secretly that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak lives up to his street rep and crushes all dissent or whether that high-handed, manipulative, ineffective, United Nations apparatchik-rebranded-as-a-defender-of-democracy, Mohamed ElBaradei will bring lasting democracy to Egypt - how can I say it politely? - you have no foreign policy. This dictator-transition game is a blood sport and the clever maneuverers are quickly replaced by the not-so-subtle killers, as was evident in the post-shah politics of Iran. We’re looking for foreign policy in all the wrong places. What to do?
The transition of the Czech Republic, Poland and other Eastern European countries to stable democracy and free markets might be of use but they are also specialized cases because of the strong NATO presence, the familiarity with Western European politics and economies, and the carrot of EU membership.
The best model is Chile. Former Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet, as with Mr. Mubarak, was a military-raised nationalist whose task was no walk in the park. He oversaw a brutal regime with the requisite tens of thousands of “disappearances,” tortures and murders. But he also allowed conditions to be put in place that led to a stabilized, vibrant, economy and smooth transition to democratic power, although it required a lot of prodding on the last point.
Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s - a period Mrs. Clinton should be familiar with - Pinochet developed a team of University of Chicago-educated economists - “the Chicago Boys” - under the leadership of Finance Minister Hernan Buchi; launched a huge privatization of the state-run enterprises from telephones to electric utilities to mining; converted a copper-commodity-based, hypercyclical economy to a dynamic, low-inflation, stable economy almost overnight; and set up the frameworks - again, with prodding - for a stable system of democracy.
After many false starts - the Salvador Allende assassination, the ITT scandal, etc. - U.S. foreign policy settled down to steady pressure on human rights issues and encouragement of economic liberalization and eventually, political liberalization. None of the “development” strategies - the U.S. Agency for International Development, United Nations, tooth fairy, the kind of stuff we’ve tried in Egypt - were relevant or remotely effective during this period. In the end, Chile has been a success story and a template that has been copied in varying degrees in Argentina, Brazil and Eastern Europe. The result has been a huge and sustained improvement in human conditions. The United States needs to apologize to no one for helping in this.
The U.S. must always lead with human rights - that is the principled and “pragmatic” approach. Economic reform must precede political reform. The toughest part to swallow is political stability, even if authoritarian, as it is important to allow for economic liberalization and eventual political liberalization. If you allow political chaos, it always breeds political and economic chaos. A strong and credible democratic opposition must form and be supported by the United States. Placing bets on bureaucrats - U.N. or otherwise - is a losing game (see Iran).
The difference between Pinochet and Mr. Mubarak is that Pinochet had a plan. The United States must push today’s dictators to get a plan. Tell them that today, despite the nostalgia craze, passing it all down to the kids and extended family is almost always a bad plan and a disappointment.
All of this is still possible. It will be labeled “meddling,” but the world expects the U.S. to meddle. Who knows? If the Obama administration gets it right in Egypt, it may begin to develop real policies for Venezuela, Cuba, Myanmar, Pakistan, Russia, China and other difficult parts of the world.
Grady Means was a consultant for the Chilean government as a partner at Coopers and Lybrand, supporting the privatization of the Chilean telecommunications sector and other sectors in Chile, Argentina and Brazil.