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David Sirota
David Sirota
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With Democracy or Against It -- There's No In Between


In America, politicians are rarely compelled to turn rhetoric into action. Presidents make public commitments to support legislation while quietly instructing their congressional allies to kill the corresponding bills. Congresspeople then campaign on policy proposals only to make sure their respective presidents veto the initiatives.

We all know this game — we know its rigged rules ensure plausible deniability and prevent follow through. But as the Mideast showed this week, just because those are our rules doesn't mean everyone plays by them.

That's what the Egyptian protests against U.S.-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak really represent for us: a poignant demand that we actually embody our democratic creed — a demand whose response shows an American government desperate to avoid walking its talk.

Remember, President Obama told a Cairo audience in 2009 that America would unequivocally back Egyptians' democratic aspirations. Citing our nation's history being "born out of revolution against an empire," he said: "We will support (democracy) everywhere."

That declaration, while admirable, was hardly courageous because it was presented as a foreign-policy version of an American campaign promise — that is, it was issued by a politician who never really expected to be asked for attendant action. In fact, the Obama administration was so certain it wouldn't have to embody its platitudes that it was actively slashing grants for democracy-building in Egypt while maintaining military aid to the Mubarak dictatorship.

As if deliberately bragging about this disconnect between pro-democratic rhetoric and undemocratic reality, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Arab television: "I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family."

Those "friends," of course, fired "USA"-labeled tear gas canisters at the very democratic protestors America promised to support. As the demonstrations persisted, Obama discarded the bromides of his Cairo speech and refused to press for Mubarak's immediate resignation.

He then dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to both praise the despot as an "ally" and tell reporters to "not refer to him as a dictator."

Following suit, Clinton said that despite America's stated commitment to democracy, "we're not advocating any specific outcome." When asked whether the administration was at least backing away from her BFF Mubarak, Clinton was reduced to Rumsfeldian incoherence, insisting that "we do not want to send any message about backing forward or backing back."

This left Egypt's Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei to humiliate our equivocating leaders by stating the obvious: "The American government cannot ask the Egyptian people to believe that a dictator who has been in power for 30 years will be the one to implement democracy."

Despite the indisputable truth of ElBaradei's words, politicians and pundits has mostly defended the administration's behavior. From neoconservatives to Obama loyalists, the mediascape teems with those arguing that though we want democracy, we might have to continue propping up autocrats because democracy could elect regimes we dislike.

But that's the rub: Just as you cannot be sorta pregnant, you cannot kinda support democracy, and only when it does what you want. That's not "supporting democracy"; that's imperialism. Indeed, the ideal of self-governance is as uncompromising as America's views on terrorism: You're either with democracy, or you're against it — and as Martin Luther King noted, we are too often against it.

Echoing President Kennedy's aphorism that "those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable," King warned in 1967 that while our country once "initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world," we were becoming "the arch anti-revolutionaries." That reality has sowed predictable anti-Americanism among populations we've helped subjugate.

Now, though, we may see some much-needed change. With Cairo protestors so blatantly exposing our hypocrisy, we could end up shamed into finally living our democratic values — and fulfilling Dr. King's dream.

David Sirota is a best-selling author whose upcoming book "Back to Our Future" will be released in March of 2011. He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado. E-mail him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at



5 Comments | Post Comment
I like and admire David Sirota, and think he is mostly on the mone y here.
As an aside, though, may I suggest that he find a new 21st century metaphor? I am referring to "you can't be sorta pregnant." In a protozoic sense he may be correct, but this hearkens back to the era before women controlled their bodies (in liberalizing societies, which mideastern nations fitfully belong in) and thus carries a lot of subtlety-canceling baggage.
Indeed, there is a great deal of difference, practically speaking, between a woman who is six days, six weeks, or six months pregnant.
The old term indicated that once done, the game was over for the woman---all options closed. That being no longer the case, maybe we should not use it anymore. (And, I haven't thought it through, but maybe it means now that a manichean political view is no longer appropriate either, here or elsewhere. But, I hasten to add, this is NOT a neoconservative endorsement of Reaganesque "they may be dictators but they are our ANTI-Communist dictators." Alas, nothing is that simple---then or now. But I do prefer that you lean forcefully in the direction you do in any event, since we tend to wake up to over-ripe dictatorships a bit late in general. But, then, we don't want to be imperialist in pushing events upon others either. It IS subtle.)
PS Good luck after OpenLeft.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Prospero
Fri Feb 4, 2011 12:33 PM
I just don't think the outcome in Egypt is going to be democratic. It is much more likely to become another Islamic state. Too many failures to mention, but another brick in the wall we will perhaps run up against one day. Jihadists don't care much for Martin Luther King's dream. They have their own.

Comment: #2
Posted by: Tom
Fri Feb 4, 2011 2:17 PM
I sent the following e-mail to Mr. Sirota regarding this article:
Dear Mr. Sirota,
I just finished reading your article with the subject title.
I must say that it is the purist of nonsense. Egypt is a sovereign nation. They are in the midst of a populist revolution that is largely leaderless.
The approach that our government takes in this matter is of the utmost delicacy and complexity.
To simply declare that we are in favor of democracy and somehow "order out" the existing government without regard to who fills the resulting vacuum is naive.
You seem to favor ElBaradei. That is your privilege but it is not necessarily the democratic choice of the people of Egypt.
There is another group that may grab the reins of leadership, the Muslim Brotherhood. You fail to acknowledge them in your article and the potential consequences of their assuming control of the government. Will Egypt become another Islamic theocracy? And where will that lead us?
Your writing shows a naivette for world affairs and a bias against our government even as it is working diligently through appropriate channels lest once again we become the "ugly American."

I received this reply from Mr. Sirota:
And you, Roger, seem to forget a small little detail: Your and my taxpayer dollars are going to prop up the dictator there. So we are already "deciding" - the idea that we should stay "hands off" when we are already invested is the platitude of someone who clearly knows nothing about the Middle East.
Here's a suggestion - next time you email someone, try doing a bit of research. I know that can be tough with only 5 brain cells, but try.

Regretably, Mr. Sirota choose to use insult in place of reason. The response he provided might be expected from a Rush Limbaugh or Glen Beck who attack the individual not the idea when challenged.

Comment: #3
Posted by: Roger
Mon Feb 7, 2011 9:07 AM
The only thing I missed in the talks about Egypt is what the people protesting are defining what Democracy is.
That might be something to ask the population. Take notes on their answers and find out if they have more than 5 brain cells.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Bill Baker
Tue Feb 8, 2011 7:08 PM
"Your and my taxpayer dollars are going to prop up the dictator there. So we are already "deciding" "
Sirota makes an excellent point, if indelicately.
Comment: #5
Posted by: sr
Wed Feb 9, 2011 2:52 PM
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