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

The Failure of Ideals

Idealists insist that the common rubric--"interests versus ideals"--is a false dichotomy. What we're really arguing about, they say, is whether we want results in the short term or the long term. They concede that, in the here and now, we can control regimes and protect oil, but we are myopic to ignore the inexorable global trend toward democracy. The transition may be hairy, but representative democracy (regardless of whether it produces a liberal government) and better income distribution will provide the longest-term stability. Since that is what the realists want anyway, and because our rhetoric is already full of big talk about freedom, we should just get on the right side of history.

A proto-version of that philosophy drove Woodrow Wilson to Paris in 1919 to sell the great powers on the virtues of self-determination. Being new to this game, he was badly outmaneuvered by his European allies David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau, whose Treaty of Versailles carved up the spoils of World War I, ensuring three more decades of colonization in the Middle East. It was a harbinger of best intentions.

Although the United States mostly followed the realpolitik lead of Britain and France in the second half of the century, we made occasional, and important, exceptions for idealism. One came from Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. The new Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had helped overthrow King Farouk I four years earlier, announced his intention to nationalize the Suez Canal. Britain, France, and Israel answered with a shooting war--without informing the United States.

Eisenhower leaned hard on his allies to stop the fighting before they had secured control of the canal, partly in the hope this would win Nasser's allegiance. But the Soviet Union was even louder in its condemnation of the war, and Nasser, who was already drifting toward alignment with Moscow, never credited Eisenhower with the effort. The West had lost the canal and Nasser.

The classic Middle Eastern test of ideals did not turn out well for Washington. Jimmy Carter had campaigned for president in 1976 promising a more principled foreign policy, and a 1978 uprising in Iran gave him a chance to deliver. Protesters seemed likely to topple a stable, secular ally in Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and replace him with a potentially Islamic state in a strategic location. Inside the administration, realist National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski argued that the monarch should send out his army to quiet the protests and safeguard his government. Idealistic Secretary of State Cyrus Vance countered that Carter should tell Pahlavi to stay his hand. Vance won, and so did the clerics.

The outcome? Three decades of trouble and an object lesson on how unpredictable popular uprisings can be. "That trade-off is very much on Obama's plate right now, which is why the administration is treading so carefully," said Charles Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service and the author of The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-First Century. "He can voice support for the protesters and recognize their grievances, but ... you never know what you're going to get when the regime falls."

The advent of Iran's Islamic Republic led to a realist revival among Middle East policymakers, but the 9/11 attacks eventually restored a strain of idealism. The Iraq war was not waged entirely for ideals, but its architects were idealists, and they assumed that a stable, pluralistic, constitutional democracy could be nurtured in Saddam's wake. Instead, they unleashed several years of sectarian violence, a new stomping ground for Iranian influence, and a bitterly divided government. Meanwhile, the "demonstration effect" they predicted--in which Arab populations, following the example of Iraq, saw the potential for democracy and overthrew their autocrats--mostly failed to materialize. (Democratic movements in Lebanon, Tunisia, and Egypt have hardly cited Iraq as their predicate.)

George W. Bush wasn't through, though. In his second inaugural address, he promised that America would no longer "tolerate oppression for the sake of stability," and he encouraged Israel to withdraw from Gaza. For Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the pullout was only about strategy; but Bush incorporated it into his freedom agenda when he pushed for elections there in 2006. The result conjured up a nightmare for Israel and made Hamas the first terrorist organization ever to be voted control of a government. It has used this platform to suppress secularism and dissent, fire rockets at Israeli cities, and wage a low-grade civil war against the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. In a worst-case scenario, this is a glimpse of Egypt's future.

Even the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon seemed at the time a true victory for idealism. (Realists liked it, too, because it cleaved Damascus from Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite militia that functions as a state within a state.) Instead, religious differences have made the country essentially ungovernable: Beirut could not even prevent Hezbollah from waging a private war against Israel in 2006. Hezbollah also gained enough seats and allies in Lebanon's parliament to give it kingmaker status; it picked the nation's new prime minister last month.

Decision: Egypt

On Egypt this week, administration officials have mostly channeled idealism, calling for elections, demanding an "orderly transition" to a representative government, and essentially throwing Mubarak under the bus. It gives them a chance to follow through on the rhetoric of Obama's Cairo speech: "You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party." But if the White House truly chooses democracy over stability, it treads a course laden with dangers to its interests.

First, it's not impossible that lawlessness will induce Egypt's risk-averse generals to crack down. But the White House is lucky that the military, which has benefited from billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, does not seem predisposed to fire on its people, many of whom continue to insist that Mubarak step down now. "The Egyptian army will try and avoid at all costs the moment when Mubarak or someone else orders them to turn their guns on their own people, and I think before it comes to that they will push the leader overboard," said Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Ruling but Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey. In two previous instances when the Egyptian army took to the streets in a time of crisis--in 1977 and 1986--it did so without major violence.

Second, the chaos of the protest movement leaves room for radical Islamists to hijack the revolution, as they did in Iran. In the same way that Iranians greeted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, thousands of Tunisians took to the streets last week to welcome the return of Islamist leader Rachid Ennahada, who had spent two decades in exile. The Muslim Brotherhood was also much more visible in the Cairo protests this week than last week.

Here is the trouble in trading the devil you know for the devil you don't in Egypt. "It will be hard to have a post-Mubarak political arrangement in Egypt without the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood, because they are well organized and still retain significant popular support," said Abdeslam Maghraoui, the author of Liberalism Without Democracy: Nationhood and Citizenship in Egypt 1922-1939. "The brotherhood also knows, however, that relatively cosmopolitan Egypt is unlikely to willingly trade autocracy for theocracy, or to embrace sharia law."

Third, even if Islamists don't take over, Washington and Jerusalem will have to live with the fact that truly representative Arab democracies will be more anti-Western than compliant autocrats or pampered elites. "I don't underestimate the ability of the Muslim Brotherhood to cause trouble.... They [would] try and cancel the peace treaty with Israel and drag the country in a more anti-Western and confrontational direction," said Tawfik Hamid, an Egyptian and chair of the study of Islamic radicalization at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. "For a number of reasons, however, the Muslim Brotherhood's support has declined in Egypt in recent years. A lot of younger Egyptians have come to reject their radical views, for instance, because they see the problems created when the Islamists have gained dominant power in places like Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iran. The brotherhood also joined the recent protests very late, which many Egyptians saw as hypocritical."

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

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