How History Unfolds Unpredictably

by Conor Friedersdorf

In as fine a column as I've seen on the Egyptian uprising, Ross Douthat argues that despite being an American ally, Hosni Mubarack's rule helped bring about the conditions that led to the September 11 terrorist attacks:

In “The Looming Tower,” his history of Al Qaeda, Lawrence Wright raises the possibility that “America’s tragedy on September 11 was born in the prisons of Egypt.” By visiting imprisonment, torture and exile upon Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak foreclosed any possibility of an Islamic revolution in his own country. But he also helped radicalize and internationalize his country’s Islamists, pushing men like Ayman Al-Zawahiri Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant, and arguably the real brains behind Al Qaeda out of Egyptian politics and into the global jihad.

At the same time, Mubarak’s relationship with Washington has offered constant vindication for the jihadi worldview. Under his rule, Egypt received more American dollars than any country besides Israel. For many young Egyptians, restless amid political and economic stagnation, it’s been a short leap from hating their dictator to hating his patrons in the United States. One of the men who made this leap was an architecture student named Mohamed Atta, who was at the cockpit when American Airlines Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center.

Lest you draw conclusions from that excerpt, note that the point he's actually making is much more subtle than any one take on the uprising. In his conclusion, he gives voice to a thought I've struggled and failed to articulate:

There are devils behind every door.

Americans don’t like to admit this. We take refuge in foreign policy systems: liberal internationalism or realpolitik, neoconservatism or noninterventionism. We have theories, and expect the facts to fall into line behind them. Support democracy, and stability will take care of itself. Don’t meddle, and nobody will meddle with you. International institutions will keep the peace. No, balance-of-power politics will do it.

But history makes fools of us all.

To me, this inability to predict how foreign policy will play out should bias us in favor of non-intervention in most cases, and definitively against Washington DC players who talk of pivots, domino theories, fly-paper, seeds of democracy, and any other theory that makes it seem as if they can game things out far into the future.