The Familiar Shock

Good stuff from David Brooks:

The other thing we’ve learned is that the United States usually gets everything wrong. There have been dozens of democratic uprisings over the years, but the government always reacts like it’s the first one. There seem to be no protocols for these situations, no preset questions to be asked.

Policy makers always underestimate the power of the bottom-up quest for dignity, so they are slow to understand what is happening. Last week, for example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the Egyptian regime was stable, just as it was falling apart.

Then their instinct is to comfort the fellow members of the club of those in power. The Obama administration was very solicitous of President Hosni Mubarak during the first days of the protests and of other dictators who fear their regime may be next.

Then, desperately recalibrating in an effort to keep up with events, they inevitably make a series of subtle distinctions no one else heeds. The Obama administration ended up absurdly calling on Mubarak to initiate a reform agenda. Surely there’s not a single person in the government who thinks he is actually capable of doing this. Meanwhile, the marchers heard this fudge as Obama supporting Mubarak and were outraged.

The Obama administration’s reaction was tardy, but no worse than, say, the first Bush administration’s reaction to the uprisings in the Baltics and Ukraine. The point is, there’s no need to be continually wrong-footed. If you start with a healthy respect for the quest for dignity, if you see autocracies as fragile and democratic revolts as opportunities, then you’ll find it much easier to anticipate events.

I’m not sure I completely agree with that bit about the Baltics and the Ukraine, but I think he’s correct about the larger point.

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