Beyond Our Reach: Why We've Failed in the Middle East

Realpolitik hasn't worked; neither has idealism. It's time to scale back our ambitions.

Here is a truism: American foreign policy has always been torn between interests and ideals. That dichotomy long predates the popular uprisings roiling Egypt and Tunisia. It animated the Cold War debates over whether we should support democratically elected socialists or Western-aligned autocrats. Policymakers usually settled those disputes by judging what would be most advantageous to the United States, but even when Washington made a noble choice, as when Americans helped push out Filipino kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, things mostly worked out for us in the end. The world is filled with relatively stable nations we once meddled in, still friendly enough to the United States. They do not continue, in perpetuity, to serve up diplomatic, social, economic, and military crises.

The Middle East is, and has always been, a special problem; Egypt is only the latest reminder. Successive presidents have tested both approaches there. The architects of realpolitik tried to balance powers, fabricate stability, and secure natural resources. These realists, alarmed by the unpredictability of democracy, have generally controlled American foreign policy. In the Middle East, they propped up authoritarian leaders, often tolerating economic stagnation and political repression--a story that ends in anti-Western sentiment and Islamism (a strain of which sparked the transnational jihad we are battling today).

Idealists, meanwhile, have threatened to withdraw aid from governments, barked about human rights, and tried to push democracy onto nations in the region, usually with weak follow-through. Where they've failed, they have incurred resentment and charges of imperialism. But even where these experiments were genuinely attempted, such as the 2006 Palestinian election that brought Hamas to power in Gaza, they always seem to end badly.

Egypt offered the quintessential formula: On one hand, supporting the 30-year regime of President Hosni Mubarak would have kept Egyptians disenfranchised and would probably have subjected them to further oppression, poverty, and torpor--all in direct transgression of the values that Washington constantly commends to Arab despots. At best, it would have meant merely a stay of execution for Mubarak.

Abandoning him, though, could be catastrophic. Sixty years of tradition went into America's Egypt strategy of warding off exactly the risks that the White House has now assumed by showing Mubarak the door. For one, if Mubarak's thugs and opposition leaders--insofar as there are any--won't pack up their dispute, the violence could end who knows where. Democracy would lose plenty of luster in the Middle East if the first uprising to depose a nationalist dictator did so amid bloodshed.

What's more, policymakers have no idea who can fill the vacuum. The uprising has been organic, and although the moderate former U.N. nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei has rallied Mubarak's opponents today, there's no promise that they'll stick with him tomorrow, after they've accomplished their objective. If the uprising fractures, as it did after the 1979 Iranian revolution, it will be vulnerable to a takeover by the most-radical elements--a common feature of rebellions. What if Cairo produces a Sunni reflection
of Tehran?

Finally, a representative government in Egypt would offer a posture much more hostile to the West than Mubarak's unpopular program. The outgoing president hunted down terrorists, kept Islamists at bay (which, unfortunately, goaded them all the more), and made the world safe for Israel by holding to a crucial treaty. He was a model for other regional autocrats who are all now in danger--along with those policies and the entire American strategy based on them.

In the Bush years, White House officials recognized the historical failures of realpolitik and declared that liberty was worth the risks. But they halted the freedom agenda when they realized what it might actually mean. Now, idealists are finally getting democracy over stability--another stance with a history of failure. Supporting dictators doesn't work; but removing them doesn't work either. The lesson of Egypt, and of America's tortuous role in the Middle East, is that we would be best served by having to make no choice at all.

The Price of Realism

For the West, interests have almost always outweighed ideals in the Middle East. Even after World War II, when Britain and France withdrew from their colonies, the Cold War settled nearly all arguments in favor of realism. Washington was convinced that it needed every possible asset to fight the Soviets, and so alignment between East and West, much more than liberal democracy, informed American decisions about which nations to court. "We've been a much more realpolitik power than most politicians will say and most citizens believe," said Rajan Menon, a political scientist at the City College of New York and the author of The End of Alliances.

That attitude left Washington skittish about nationalist and anti-colonialist movements like the one developed by Libya's Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, after his 1969 coup, because, around the world, these groups were easily hijacked by the Communists. But autocrats such as Egypt's King Farouk I were never truly stable. And when they were overthrown, new governments took power with built-in enmity for the United States, or at least a desire for nonalignment. Over the decades, local populations came to see Washington as complicit in their oppression.

Today, nearly all Arab nations, but especially those with despotic regimes that do business with Washington, are plagued by certain pathologies. Foremost among them is a youth bulge: Far more people are coming of age than there are jobs to fill. Before the financial crisis, unemployment rates in the Middle East stood at 20 to 40 percent, double the global rates. (Petrostates of the Arabian Peninsula enjoy some of the highest per capita income in the world, but youths there are still disinclined to find jobs because imported labor makes them associate work with the underclass.)

The resulting delay in marriage, along with rapid urbanization and a lack of legitimate outlets for discontent, have driven many young people toward Islam. Radicalization, in turn, convinced most policymakers that democracy in the Middle East is too risky, especially in strategically crucial nations such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

Autocracy is not the only reason for these problems, but an alliance with Washington gives autocrats more leverage to resist reform. Even when they concede enough political or religious space to stay in power--Hashemite and Saudi monarchies, for instance, have proved quite durable--they are probably living on borrowed time. And the longer these societies stagnate, the more fraught the transition to democracy becomes. "You run that risk, because these regimes have systematically emasculated the free press, civil society, and human rights," Menon says. "They have created a society ill-equipped to manage the transformation."

America's more craven gestures at realism have often backfired. The Iran-Iraq war, in which we supported a murderous despot because he fought an American adversary, is a classic example. A year after the Iranian revolution, Iraq's Saddam Hussein launched an attack on his neighbor, fearing that his own Shiite majority would follow Iran's lead into revolt. Washington lifted the ban on dual-use technology exports, gave Baghdad intelligence about Iran's position, and indirectly helped to arm Saddam--resulting in the dictator's famous photo with Donald Rumsfeld. (At the same time, the Reagan administration hatched the Iran-Contra scheme that funneled antitank weapons to Tehran.) The war ended in stalemate, and Saddam paid back his patrons by invading Kuwait two years later. Even that conflict, Desert Storm, concluded with a realpolitik decision--to leave Saddam in power--that came back to haunt Washington yet again.

Finally, the long pursuit of interests in the region has sapped American credibility there. Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a speech in Cairo in 2005 insisting that the United States would no longer accept autocracy as the price for stability. But the Bush administration abandoned its "freedom agenda" for a more cautious stance after Hamas won power in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood gained seats in Egypt's parliament.

President Obama's first major address to Arabs, also in Cairo, followed the restrained script. He dropped plenty of high-minded ideas but suggested that, for the sake of advancing American interests, he would engage despotic rulers. The United States already faced so many diplomatic challenges; Obama would take help where he could get it. But that didn't stop Washington from coming off as downright cynical when WikiLeaks published an American cable detailing corruption among Tunisia's rulers: "The excesses of the Ben Ali family," the nation's first family (and our allies), "are getting worse." The long-term cost of hypocrisy is hard to quantify, but experts agree that the mixed messages from Washington devalue America's bully pulpit.

Presented by

Adam B. Kushner is deputy editor of National Journal magazine.

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