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Insistent, Not Imperial

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What others want for themselves is more important than what we want for them -- always.

As the daily drama of street demonstrations, shuttle diplomacy, and backroom deals has unfolded in Egypt over the past three weeks, the Obama administration gradually shifted its stance from standing by the side of now former president Hosni Mubarak -- as so many presidents before Obama have done -- to accepting and encouraging his incremental concessions to the demands of the Egyptian people.

Obama's initial reflex to stand by Mubarak's side might have come at the cost of years of continued resentment against America, which for decades has chosen regimes over citizens in the Middle East. Fortunately, he adjusted to the circumstances on the ground. When the facts changed, he changed his mind. But the lesson of Egypt goes far beyond the need to be nimble in diplomacy. Rather, it is that in an age of people power -- whether fueled by the price of food or by Facebook -- what foreign citizens want for themselves is always more important than what we want for them.

People power is no longer a long-term hope; it is a revolutionary force that America should support in the interest of a more stable long-term policy. In Egypt, people power is also fully aligned with America's stated foreign policy goals. The coalition of Egyptian youth, workers, and faithful protesting the Mubarak regime have achieved in less than a month what American diplomacy neglected to do in three decades: impose term limits, curb executive powers, and promote democracy and civic movements.

Only inertia and a lack of foresight keep us wedded to status quo arrangements. Many Americans surely continue to believe that Egyptians, having suffered under Mubarak's authoritarian rule for most or all of their lives, wouldn't know how to navigate the intricacies of democracy, and might fall prey to the well-organized and widely embedded networks of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet Egyptians on the street have proven to be no fools. Even Mubarak's resignation has failed to impress them as they persist in the quest for genuine constitutional reforms that radically curb the powers of the president -- any president -- and limit the military's grip on the main levers of government bureaucracy and the economy. It would be wise for America not to be satisfied until they are, and continue to insist that their demands be met.

As numerous Arab autocrats approach their expiration date, we must remember that the overwhelming proportion of their populations belong to Generation-Y, whose defining geopolitical experience isn't America's anti-imperial strong-arming of Britain and France to quit their seizure of the Suez Canal in 1956, but rather America's invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Israel's incursion into Lebanon in 2006. The very notion that Arab states need to have a strong external patron such as America is completely alien to them. To the contrary, they view America's reckless armament of corrupt regimes as a deeper cause of terrorism, proliferation, and conflict.

So often in the past, American leaders have taken comfort in the knowledge that even through periods of great upheaval, military chiefs, often trained in the U.S., remain loyal American allies. Indeed, at the moment, the Egyptian military still very much calls the shots. But while the significance of this ensures open lines of communication and access to intelligence in the short-term, the longer-term merits of such reliance are dubious at best. Indeed, the appeasement of the Egyptian armed forces through over $1 billion in annual military assistance is particularly ironic given that the country signed a peace treaty with Israel over three decades ago. America should regret investing so heavily in a tenuously manufactured top-level peace among governments and so little in encouraging peace among peoples. The military cannot control popular psychology, and continuing to support the military above civilian authorities only perpetuates accusations that America practices proxy imperialism and fuels widespread opposition to American policies.

If the Egyptian military continues to dominate the country's politics, economy and foreign policy for another decade or more, the country will become an Arab version of Pakistan: Overpopulated, corrupt at all levels, seething with popular discontent and alienation, and a hotbed of anti-American radicalism. In other words, hostile to U.S. interests other than at the superficial level of American and Egyptian generals meeting for tea.

A better strategy would be to encourage a Turkish path for Egypt. The military has been an important secular bulwark in Turkey, but gradually the countries many political parties and economic elites, combined with strong pressure from the European Union, have pushed it ever more to the margins of policy-making. As Egypt -- and potentially other Arab nations -- take on greater democratic characteristics, there will be little choice but to engage with political parties and factions across the political spectrum, whether secular opposition, religious minorities, elite technocrats, and most certainly the Muslim Brotherhood. In democracies, we have to be prepared for our "son of a bitch" to not win, and also already be friends with whoever does.

For America to recover from this position of populist disadvantage, it will have to shift rapidly and sincerely towards a posture of being ready to help others help themselves in whichever direction points towards better governance, even if not Western democracy. In an increasingly multipolar geopolitical marketplace, this shift is a strategic imperative. For Arabs today know that if America doesn't give them what they want -- such as commercial investment, civilian aid, and educational opportunities -- other suitors such as the European Union or China will. The people know what they want -- we are either with them or against them.

Parag Khanna is a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance, just released by Random House.