Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.
Over the course of his first two terms in office, Franklin Roosevelt’s freedom of action in foreign policy was severely hampered by American public opinion. Torn asunder by the devastating effects of the Great Depression and bitter about American involvement in World War I, the American people of the 1930s largely turned their backs on the rest of the world and disavowed their international responsibilities. In the absence of American support, the League of Nations foundered and the enemies of democracy flourished. Piece by piece, Hitler’s Germany expanded at the expense of her neighbors, Italy invaded Abyssinia, Franco launched his fascist crusade in Spain, and the Japanese invaded China. Restrained by neutrality laws passed in the mid 1930s that did not distinguish between aggressor and victim, FDR could do little to assist the targets of aggression and by the end of the 1930s the United States found itself confronting a new world war.
Retrained by this “isolationist” sentiment, Roosevelt’s response to the international dimension of the world crisis in many ways mirrored his response to the internal crisis. He periodically tested the limits of American isolationism by engaging in limited diplomacy during the 1930s. Once war broke out, he gradually increased America’s support to those who opposed fascism until December 7, 1941, when America found itself under attack and in the war.
FDR pursued this course of action because he understood the critical need for his administration not to get too far out ahead of the public in the exercise of American foreign policy. He also spent a good deal of his time trying to educate the public about the dangers fascism and the need for the United States to do what it could to help preserve democracy, in part by setting an example for the rest of the world to follow.
As far as U.S. policy toward the current crisis in Egypt is concerned, President Obama, unlike FDR, does not find himself nearly so constrained by public opinion. Recent polls show that a majority of Americans, though cautious, support the promotion of democracy in Egypt and are very sympathetic with the plight of the protesters. Moreover, an increasing number of Middle East policy analysts have come forward to criticize the Obama administration for its failure to act more decisively in support of the democracy movement. Then there is the reaction among the protesters themselves, where — rightly or wrongly — there is a growing sense that U.S. policy at best is contributing to the prolongation of the crisis and at worst is now helping prop up the Mubarak regime.
Given the volatile nature of the Middle East, one can sympathize with the Obama administration’s fears about the risks involved in pursuing a more forward policy. But with such a strong consensus emerging both at home and abroad in favor of “real change” in Egypt, it runs a real risk of falling far behind public opinion on an issue of immense historic importance. This would be a tragic mistake that would not only reduce our long-term credibility in the Middle East, but would also damage our standing in other parts of the world — not to mention the damage it might do to President Obama’s stature at home.
Faced with this dilemma, the best solution may be for President Obama to embrace the public sentiment in favor of democracy while at the same time exercising the same sort of leadership that FDR exercised in the mid to late 1930s. In short, it is probably high time that he came out strongly and unequivocally for the forces of democracy. Doing so might anger those in power in the Middle East, but it would place the United States and U.S. policy where it rightly belongs — on the side of the people.
Given the passion for democracy that has erupted in much of the Middle East, pursuing such a policy should not be viewed as risky idealism, but quite the contrary, as hard-headed realism. The people of Egypt have made their choice. It is time for the United States to do the same.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.