As Egypt Protesters Look to U.S. in Vain, Remembering Another Lost Opportunity

China v Japan(Pictured: China fighting Japan in World War II.)

The official response of the White House and State Department to the ongoing protests in Egypt has sparked a much-needed discussion about the contradictions between U.S. avowals of democracy and support for its authoritarian allies in the Middle East.

This is not by any means a new phenomenon nor is it particular to Middle East policy. At this critical juncture, it is worth reflecting on another moment and region where senior policymakers faced a choice between democracy and stability.

As the Second World War drew to a close in Asia, the old colonial and authoritarian regimes were withering in the face of new forces and leadership. The emerging leaders in China and Vietnam sought support from a United States that, against the crusty position of Britain and France, had styled itself as a friend of democratic and anti-colonial movements. While the Chinese Nationalist forces had been lackluster during the war and the French government in Indochina had capitulated to the Japanese occupation, both the Chinese Communists (CCP) and the Indochina Communist Party (ICP) had fought valiantly against the Japanese.

In January 1945, Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong sent a joint message to President Truman expressing their desire to travel to the United States to discuss the future of China. One year later, Ho Chi Minh sent a telegram to Truman urging the president and the American people to “interfere urgently in support of our independence.” Both of these letters went unanswered.

We will never know what might have happened had these gestures been taken more seriously. But we do know how much was lost in the subsequent hot wars that was the Cold War in Asia. Not only in terms of lives, which realists will readily shrug off,

but also in terms of the ever-so-important “prestige” in the eyes of the world, which, in the modern era, has been a priority for even the most cynical of American foreign policymakers.

Admittedly, the situation in the Middle East in 2011 is different than Asia in 1945. Egypt is not China or Vietnam and the protesters flowing into the streets in Cairo are not the CCP or the ICP. Notably, they are not the Muslim Brotherhood either. In fact, there is no evidence that there is any particular leader, radical or otherwise, pulling the strings. One would be hard-pressed to find a more liberal-secular-democratic appeal than the kind being articulated on the streets of Cairo.

Another key difference between these two moments involves how much we in the United States actually know about them while they are happening. The letters from Mao and Ho were safely guarded from the public for decades. This made it possible for Truman and subsequent administrations to characterize the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as anti-American regimes whose rule posed a worldwide threat to freedom and democracy.

In contrast, thanks to camera phones, Twitter, Facebook, and Al Jazeera, which has been broadcasting the protests in Egypt despite verbal and physical threats, we can see the protesters as well as the government’s crackdown on them. Seeing these images makes it harder to buy the notion that supporting the protests could pave the way for a more radical regime in Egypt, posing a danger to security and freedom in the Middle East. If such a regime actually does assume power, then decades from now, we can once again wonder what might have been different if, rather than cast its lot with unpopular regimes, the United States had actually supported an organic democratic movement in the Middle East.