The Time cover depicting Ronald Reagan photoshopped with his arm around Barack Obama is inescapable this week. The timing is ironic; the image serves mainly to highlight the unlikeness of the two men in the face of profound developments abroad. I think most Americans viscerally reject the comparison: Obama, emerging occasionally from his cone of silence to utter a few clipped, perfunctory sentences about the uprising in Egypt, is no Ronald Reagan.
But that begs the question: what would Reagan do? I was thinking about this yesterday as I watched the panel on Fox News’s Special Report. Charles Krauthammer was parsing the situation with his usual precision, and his take (I’m paraphrasing) was that as long as the Egyptian army has control of the country, there will be some reassuring adult supervision of the potential outcomes. This is good analysis – certainly important from the security point of view – but somewhat deflating as freedom rhetoric. The freedom rhetoric is what’s missing in January 2011. Reagan excelled at it – and I think he would, characteristically, have recognized a tremendous opportunity to use ideas to influence the course of events in the Arab world.
Reagan approached rhetoric in its original sense in the canon of Western thought: as an intellectual discipline and a mighty tool. His power as a communicator derived from his practice – so frustrating to his political opponents – of assuming philosophical points more often than arguing them, and spending his time on the memorable aspects of rhetoric: anecdote, inspiration, humor, warning. His basic posture in communicating was what America’s posture ought to be toward the people of Egypt: one of respectful encouragement and persuasion, unashamed to speak in explicit terms about the meaning of liberty.
For Reagan, it would go without saying that the United States will not choose a political path for Egypt. Obama assumes that that needs clarifying; Reagan would have assumed the opposite. I believe Reagan would have started the conversation by offering a gift from America’s unique lore of liberty:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
These foundational words, to be used only with due consideration and in the appropriate situations, would establish clearly how the United States classifies the uprising in Egypt. Not all “revolutions” merit this allusion, but I think Reagan would judge that this one does.
He would proceed to build on this reference by shifting his citations to a fount of ideas from Egypt’s past – because, while there was only one Declaration of Independence, each people approaches the Declaration’s ideas in its own way. Reagan might posit, in passing, a philosophical link between the Declaration’s unalienable rights and the wisdom passage on freedom from the Book of the Dead: “The way to final freedom is within yourself.” Perhaps along the way he would invoke incisive proverbs from the ancient temples of Luxor and Karnak, aphorisms that are a universal heritage of humanity, like “In every vital activity it is the path that matters”; or “The qualities of a moral order are measured by deeds.”
He would make admiring reference to Egypt’s long history of intellectual vigor and its iconic Arab press in the 19th and the early 20th centuries. He would probably give the most time to the Egyptian voices of freedom, dissidence, and political accountability from the past 30 years, perhaps telling the story of dissident publisher Hisham Kassem, whom Commentary’s Joshua Muravchik profiled in his 2009 book The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East. He might speak of dissident bloggers like Abdel Kareem Soliman and Hany Nazeer (a Coptic Christian), imprisoned for their writings – and in doing so affirm the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. He would no doubt recognize the courageous voices of women like Noha Atef and Dalia Ziada. He would refer to Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, the novelist whose works have been banned in Egypt, and he might quote Mahfouz as follows: “Freedom of expression must be considered sacred and thought can only be corrected by counter thought.”
Reagan would not neglect to establish that the U.S. has strategic interests intertwined with the political future of Egypt. But I believe he would elide much of the current argument by simply stating what America believes and what America will do. America believes that the adoption of liberty and consensual government is the best guarantor of security and peace. And America will stand ready to affirm our close ties with a more democratic Egypt; to assist the Egyptian people in charting their own course, without interference from the forces of illiberalism, exploitation, or terror; and to defend and reinforce Egypt’s admirable acts of global citizenship, like its peace agreement with Israel, its administration of the Suez Canal, and its cooperation in the war on terror.
It would not be Reagan, however, if the coda did not sum up the moment for us and make us smile. After characterizing the events for political effect, offering inspiration and encouragement from the Egyptians’ own heritage, and stating America’s posture, I believe Reagan would conclude with a simple quote from Anwar Sadat: “You are not a realist unless you believe in miracles.”