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.

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."

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