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

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In any case, there's no telling how a more representative government would treat any of the long-held assumptions that undergird American policy toward Egypt. For decades, Mubarak acted as a regional bulwark against the fundamentalism exported by Iran and Syria. He also backed the United States in Iraq, giving the war a crucial imprimatur from the Muslim world. "Egypt is still the keystone of the United States' Middle East policy, and the most strategically important ally we have in the region," said David Mack, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, Egypt did not need coaxing to move against Islamic fundamentalists or join in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, having spent decades battling its own extremists. When Hamas captured the Gaza Strip in 2006, Egypt cooperated with Israel by closing its border crossings to isolate the group. "For the United States, it's not important that Mubarak stays in power, but maintaining a strategic partnership with Egypt is essential," Mack says.

Many experts believe that the relationship was bound to change anyway. Even before the street protests threw the partnership into question, there were signs that the old order in the Middle East, anchored by the U.S.-Egyptian alliance, was drifting. Washington is still coping with the aftermath of the Iraq war and a fragile democracy there; that preoccupation has emboldened Iran and Syria and their terrorist proxies. Turkey, another key security partner, has increasingly charted its own course under an Islamist government that split with Washington over Iraq. Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process--the foundation stone for the U.S.-Egypt alliance--has been in shambles since 2000, despite heroic efforts by both Democratic and Republican administrations to advance it.

"The revolts in Tunisia and Egypt may be an important wake-up call suggesting that the old order is no longer viable ... and that it's time for the United States to step back and consider its overarching interests in the region, and what strategy best serves them," said Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In the short term, Brown believes, democratic upheavals will bring headaches for Washington, given how unpopular the United States is among Arabs. In the long term, though, both Israel and the U.S. could benefit from the death of the idea that the only choice for the region is between autocrats and theocrats. "Tunisia and Egypt have shown that organized popular action is no longer futile--so, suddenly, other alternatives are imaginable," Brown said.

The domino effect that began with Tunisia and spread to Egypt also threatens other governments, just based on who fills Mubarak's shoes. Two of Egypt's last three presidents, Nasser and Anwar Sadat, each changed the nation's strategic orientation with implications for the entire region. There's no reason to assume that Mubarak's eventual successor won't do the same. "Egypt has always been extremely influential in the Arab world," Mack said, "so regime change there is likely to have a ripple effect in terms of spreading political reforms throughout the region." The regimes most susceptible to the potentially destabilizing impact, he said, are poor countries long ruled by illegitimate despots. "I think the leaders in Yemen, Algeria, Syria, Morocco, and Jordan are all feeling pretty shaky right now."

The Best Laid Lands

That's the cliché. Crises in the Middle East constantly force us to make these impossible choices, and no matter how well-reasoned they seem, they often turn out to be the wrong ones. The pursuit of interests has rendered the region a tinderbox. And the pursuit of ideals has sometimes given us bad outcomes and other times failed to achieve anything at all--teaching us that revolutions are almost always organic.

Not every road leads to this fork. One way to avoid it is to recognize that, although the rise of regional powers has not always been good for American objectives, even those players can be put to good use. Our intense bilateral relationship with Egypt, which came to depend on American largesse, left us handcuffed to the regime. The only way we could have forced Mubarak to make democratic reforms would have been to withhold cash, and he always implied that doing so would empower Islamists. Better to have drafted the neighborhood countries that share an interest in upholding the global system of law and trade--Turkey, Israel, even postwar Iraq--to squeeze Mubarak on several fronts. "Multilateral efforts work better because they bring a lot more pressure," says Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Another improvement involves a more judicious compromise between idealism and interests--cultivating nations and pushing them to change at the same time, as Britain did with Libya in 2003, when it nudged the government to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons. "[We] need a hybrid policy in which we're capable of engaging our adversaries and at the same time pressuring them. Same goes for our allies. This is not something we do very well," Tabler said. It's not too late to apply that lesson to other regimes we need, such as those in Jordan and Yemen. White House officials say this is, in fact, the program, but they do not consistently or vigorously apply it.

Yet the true mistake in the Middle East has not been getting the policy (or the means) wrong; it has been assuming we could ever get it right. Even the carrot-and-stick combo doesn't promise results. (See: Iran.) Americans possess an implacable faith that every problem has a solution, if only we can devise one. In domestic affairs, this has occasionally been true. But abroad, where the world is largely beyond our reach, it is now simply false--and decades spent trying to mold events have proved catastrophic. It is a fantasy to believe that, with just a little more work, our foreign policy could do better.

A smarter course would be to become less deeply invested--to live in a world where we don't always have to make an impossible choice. And that is a problem for which real, but arduous, solutions exist. They involve a race like the moon shot to produce efficient renewable domestic energy and liberate ourselves from Middle Eastern oil; an aid program like the Marshall Plan to lift up Arabs in the youth bulge and degrade the allure of radicalization (though this, too, verges on meddling); and a platform of forthrightness about when we are nakedly pursuing our interests. To whatever extent these goals require idealism, it is at least a variety that can be realized. They won't determine the shape of governance in the Middle East, but they can at least insulate us from its surprises.

Until then, in much the way Britons eventually made peace with the demise of imperial power, Americans should learn to see the limits of what we can accomplish. The reason we've failed to conjure the Middle East we want isn't that we made the wrong choice between realism and idealism. It's because we're thinking on the wrong scale. In a lost era, Washington could reinvent nations (think of postwar Europe); today, in the real world, the best that American policymakers can do is labor at the margins and react to unforeseen events. Obama took some knocks this week for his flatfooted response to Egypt. But there is no disgrace in muddling through when there is no alternative.

James Kitfield contributed

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

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