Middle East June 2011

Danger: Falling Tyrants

As dictatorships crumble across the Middle East, what happens if Arab democracy means the rise of radical Islamism? Does promoting American values while protecting American interests—most notably, containing Iran and preserving our access to oil—require the Obama administration to call for more democracy in one country while propping up the monarch next door? In a word, yes.

The Jordanian monarchy represents the sort of regime the United States finds itself defending. It is not the most difficult regime in the Middle East to defend—throughout the early stages of the Arab revolt, Bahrain’s royal family, engaged in the often violent suppression of the country’s Shia majority, was the problem child of the American monarchy-maintenance program—but Jordan is still governed in a manner inconsistent with the spirit of Tahrir Square, a spirit appropriated by President Obama and Secretary Clinton whenever they speak of the Arab desire for democracy.

Hillary Clinton, as one would expect, doesn’t think much of the charge that the administration is engaged in a sustained campaign of hypocrisy. As the administration’s point person on the entire set of issues roiling the Middle East, she is perceived in dramatically divergent ways. In Cairo, many democracy activists believe she was overly coddling of Mubarak; at the same time, she is the object of an intense lobbying campaign by leaders of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, who fear, according to ambassadors and foreign ministers I have spoken with, that she has become some sort of moralizing neoconservative. One Gulf official I spoke with asked me earnestly if Paul Wolfowitz, the leading neoconservative theoretician of the previous presidency, was now serving as her adviser. I mentioned to Clinton that she is seen in some quarters as a kind of wild-eyed Wolfowitz. “Oh, no, not that!” she said. “Call me wild-eyed, but not that.”

When I asked her how she squares the inconsistency—working to build democracies in some countries while keeping incompetent monarchs on their thrones in others—she rejected its very existence.

“I wouldn’t accept the premise,” she said. “I think we believe in the same values and principles, full stop. We believe that countries should empower their people. We believe that people should have certain universal rights. We believe that there are certain economic systems that work better for the vast majority of people than other systems. I think we’re very consistent.”

The U.S. needs to work with the monarchies to help them stay ahead of the unrest brewing in their kingdoms, Clinton said, but even if they don’t take American advice—and she was adamant (and the record does, in fact, show) that Hosni Mubarak was offered a great deal of advice that he consistently ignored—the administration will live with what she refuses to see as inconsistencies.

“We live in the real world, and there are lots of countries that we deal with because we have interests in common, we have certain security issues that we are both looking at,” she said. “Obviously, in the Middle East, Iran is an overwhelming challenge to all of us. We do business with a lot of countries whose economic systems or political systems are not ones we would design or choose to live under. We encourage consistently, both publicly and privately, reform and the protection of human rights. But we don’t walk away from dealing with China because we think they have a deplorable human-rights record. We don’t walk away from Saudi Arabia.”

I noted that the Chinese seem frightened by the possibility that the forces unleashed by the suicide of a Tunisian peddler could reach Tiananmen Square. “They’re worried,” she said. “They’re trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand. They cannot do it, but they’re going to hold it off as long as possible.”

If it is true, to cite one of President Obama’s favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotations, that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice; and if it is true that history will sooner or later catch up with the Chinese Communist Party, then why isn’t it also true that history will soon catch up with a collection of superannuated desert monarchs? The answer came, elliptically, when I asked Clinton whether she would be sad to see the disappearance of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Not long ago, Clinton had been criticized for suggesting that Assad himself might be a “reformer,” though she acknowledges that Assad is anti-American in some very consequential ways (and not only in his service to Iran). “Depends on what replaces it,” she said, her answer combining disdain for Assad with a realpolitik understanding that some things out there are, despite the promise of the Arab Spring, potentially more dangerous to U.S. interests than certain dictatorships. For people who have known only dictatorship and who yearn for democracy, this is a hard swallow.

Striking this balance—understanding when the United States absolutely must support leaders it dislikes intensely—will remain the key foreign-policy challenge for the Obama administration, and perhaps its successors, in the coming years. Managing Saudi Arabia’s pre-modern royal family alone is a herculean task. But the United States will ultimately fail if it forgets its fundamental responsibility to people who are living under the boot of repression, and seek the freedoms Americans already have.

On my most recent visit to the Middle East, I traveled from country to country asking essentially the same question of many different people: How could the United States best serve the interests of democracy and stability? Not a single person I spoke with believed that America was in decline; to a person, everyone agreed that American power was potent. Salafists believed it was potent and malevolent; secular democracy activists believed it could be marshaled benevolently. The most eloquent answer came from Ali Salem, a free-thinking Egyptian playwright whose plays and essays were periodically banned by the ancien régime. I met Salem in a café in the Mohandessin neighborhood of Cairo, on the west bank of the Nile. While we talked, various cartoonists, columnists, and Libyan resistance leaders joined us. Salem is an unusual figure, even among democracy activists in Cairo—he is frankly Americaphilic, in part because he was brought to the United States as a young man through a State Department visitors program. He was bursting with ideas about the roles the U.S. could play in the Middle East—in education, in agriculture, but mainly in teaching leaders about how power corrupts, and about building political systems that resist that corruption. “I believe you have a great thing,” he said. “The great thing is, you have a president for four or eight years, and then out. If you are an enemy of the minister of culture and he bans your plays, you will be banned for only four or eight years. The beautiful idea is to limit the damage one human being can do to another. It’s a beautiful idea. Do you know how beautiful it is?”

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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