Austerity Measurement: Freedom Isn’t Free, And Neither Is Oil

Nobody loves a despot when he’s down and out. Or when there are thousands of rioters outside of his opulent palace.

The recent ousting of Tunisian “President” Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and the current (as of this column’s filing) instability of the Egyptian “President” Hosni Mubarak regime have put the United States and the greater oil-consuming West in a tight spot. Both leaders had the explicit support of the U.S., and while Tunisia’s revolution was hailed as an example of true bottom-up democratic initiative by Barack Obama and others, the exuberance is missing regarding calls for democracy in Egypt, a country that controls the flow of 2.5 billion barrels of oil a day through the Suez Canal and produces a fair bit of the black gold itself.

America, the great exporter of democratic ideals, is nervous about a revolution in Egypt because it disrupts the energy industry and destabilizes a key regional ally. Of course, democracy may not even blossom out of this noble experiment in Cairo (the whole thing is starting to get the stink of an incoming military junta), and even if it does, the most powerful opposition party in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, in contrast to the largely secular political aims of the Tunisians.

If there’s one thing America dislikes more than a dictatorship, it’s a democracy that doesn’t share its ideas.

Perhaps more interesting is that, arguably, the spark that lit the powderkeg of Tunisian unrest (and thereafter the current Egyptian situation) is leaked cables from the Tunisian embassy describing the lavish and disconnected lifestyle of Ben Ali and his family brought to light by none other than Wikileaks. If that’s true, Wikileaks will have done more for freedom than Operation Iraqi Freedom, or any other action in the “Global War On Terror.”

Chew on that for a minute.

But let’s be honest. The real concern is energy, not ideology. Securing Iraq in the name of democracy was always about commercial interests and was only sold to the American people with a veneer of altruism. And while leaked diplomatic cables indicate that the U.S. has been funding pro-democracy organizations in Egypt for several years, current Egyptian public opinion polls describe a dim view of the United States; only 17 percent of those polled said they had a favorable view of the U.S., and only 33 percent said the U.S. would do the ‘right thing’ in foreign affairs. This is despite Barack Obama’s widely-praised speech in Cairo not even a year ago. Several protestors in Alexandria were seen holding up placards written in English, with one reported to read, “Foreign governments, stop your hypocrisy.”

Indeed, the picture Secretary of State Hilary Clinton paints is rosier than the truth. Describing the security forces as “protecting peaceful protests,” there are first-hand reports of quickly dispersing crowds with tear gas. Instead of calling it a crisis, she describes it as a “serious time” and a “complex, very difficult situation.” And while Mubarak is trying to muster support by swearing in a new government and filling the position of Vice President (one notably vacant for the last 30 years), foreign nationals are being evacuated via flights to Cyprus starting this week, a sure harbinger of swift and ugly political change.

From afar, the situation seems more complex for the United States and its allies (notably Israel) than it does for Egyptians. Egyptians want democracy for their own reasons and they feel betrayed by a West who supported despots in their midst for so long, if only for assistance in Desert Storm and being a conduit for the delivery of precious, precious oil.

So what’s driving up the price of gasoline? Freedom. As natural a disaster as a hurricane or a tornado. Expect calls for greater energy security out of House Republicans, new calls for drilling in ANWR and off the East Coast as the memory of the BP oil spill quickly fades. Similarly, the peace process in Israel and Palestine will be put on hold while the U.S. analyzes the pieces moving the region. Even if a secular democracy rises up in Egypt—the “happy ending”—tension between the new Egyptian government and Mubarak’s old friend, the United States, will continue for a long time.