It’s a cliche of antagonistic diplomacy to pronounce no ill-feeling towards “the people” of another nation, only their benighted government. This nice distinction is intended to preserve the friendship of the foreign population--or at least, temper any warlike tendencies--while driving a wedge between leaders and led. Whether the ploy ever works is unclear but unlikely, given the difficulty of manipulating distant alien public opinion through cheap psychological tricks and flattery.
Effective or not, the sentiment behind the maneuver is usually sincere. People are people the world over, after all, with similar hopes, worries and appetites. It’s only when the motivations of one group of humans are organized and concentrated in governments that they have much effect--good or bad--on other groups. Thus it’s a fair bet that the inchoate aspirations of the “people” of another nation pose no real threat to your own. For a country like the United States, this assumption has the added benefit of supporting democracy: let the people have their way, the theory goes, and all will be well, for them and us.
The current unrest in Egypt highlights how that standard formulation has been for years stood on its head in our conduct of foreign policy throughout the Middle East. Opinion polls, such as in Egypt, consistently show that radical Muslim parties would win free and fair national elections. Because we with reason view such potential theocracies as a threat to our interests we have for decades supported secular authoritarian regimes that keep them at bay (while softly murmuring objections to those regimes’ human rights abuses).
When a crisis erupts, as in Egypt now, the U.S. scrambles to contain the damage, calibrating our language depending on who appears to be winning in the streets. But there’s a credibility problem because for decades our message has been: we have no dispute with the government, only the people.