Millions of Egyptians filled the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and other great cities of an ancient land Tuesday to make an ancient demand for the right to govern their own future… for democracy. Their posters, their chants, their pleas have been directed not merely at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak but at the U.S. government that has so generously sustained Mubarak across the decades of his assumed rather than reguylarly elected tenure.
So what is the official response of the country that has for more than two centuries has imagined itself as the champion of a faith in the power of its founding ideals to -- in the words of Thomas Jefferson -- "(arouse) men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government"?
State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley tells the world in general, and the Middle East and northern Africa in particular (via an interview with al Jazeera), that the United States is "watching and responding." The responses so far have offered something for everyone -- Joe Biden rejecting the notion that Mubarak is a dictator, Barack Obama sending back-channel suggestions that maybe Mubarak (and his son Gemal Dynastic Succession Mubarak) might want to reconsider plans to fake up another election "win" -- but scant expression of the faith that "a (ruler), whose caharacter is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."
Forget, for now, the affirmation that: "Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be" -- or that: "Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them."
For now, the United States is "watching" and, if necessary, "responding."
That absurdly tepid line -- coming from an administration that small "d" democrats around the world briefly dares hope might renew America's acquaintance with that Jeffersonian ideal – has drawn passionate condemnation from an unlikely figure.
"Events in the Middle East have slipped away from us," argues Robert Grenier, a 27-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency's Clandestine Service who served as the director of the agency's Counter-Terrorism Center before he wrangled with Vice President Dick Cheney's office and was removed in 2006. "Having long since opted in favor of political stability over the risks and uncertainties of democracy, having told ourselves that the people of the region are not ready to shoulder the burdens of freedom, having stressed that the necessary underpinnings of self-government go well beyond mere elections, suddenly the US has nothing it can credibly say as people take to the streets to try to seize control of their collective destiny."
In an article circulated internationally on al Jazeera's highly-trafficked news and opinion website, Grenier complained that: "All the US can do is "watch and respond", trying to make the best of what it transparently regards as a bad situation."
"Our words betray us," he continued. "US spokesmen stress the protesters' desire for jobs and for economic opportunity, as though that were the full extent of their aspirations. They entreat the wobbling, repressive governments in the region to 'respect civil society,' and the right of the people to protest peacefully, as though these thoroughly discredited autocrats were actually capable of reform.
"They urge calm and restraint. One listens in vain, however, for a ringing endorsement of freedom, or for a statement of encouragement to those willing to risk everything to assert their rights and their human dignity - values which the US nominally regards as universal."
Why? Grenier decries what he refers to as "a legacy of US faithlessness and willful blindness in the Middle East."
"Yes, it must be acknowledged that the US has limited influence, even over regimes with which it is aligned and which benefit from US largess. And yes, a great power has competing practical interests - be those a desire for counter-terrorism assistance, or for promotion of regional peace - which it must balance, at least in the short term, against a more idealistic commitment to democracy and universal values," admits Grenier.
But, he objects, that "successive US administrations have consistently betrayed a lack of faith in the efficacy of America's democratic creed, the extent to which the US government has denied the essentially moderating influence of democratic accountability to the people, whether in Algeria in 1992 or in Palestine in 2006."
Grenier's bottom line is blunt and, coming from the former head of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center, it ought to serve as a wake-up call not merely for long-time critics of U.S. foreign-policy but for those Americans who had not recognized the extent to which the country has -- under successive Republican and Democratic administrations -- abandoned the Jeffersonian ideal:
"The failure of the US to uphold its stated commitment to democratic values therefore goes beyond a simple surface hypocrisy, beyond the exigencies of great-power interests, to suggest a fundamental lack of belief in democracy as a means of promoting enlightened, long-term US interests in peace and stability."