With U.S. Turn Against Saleh, Has American Idealism Finally Triumphed?

Ever since Woodrow Wilson, presidents have wanted to build foreign policy around spreading democracy but been stymied by security interests. Is that over?


A few months after the Red Army finally won the Russian civil war, thus ensuring that what had begun in part as a democratic as well as socialist revolution against the tzar would end with renewed totalitarianism under the guise of communism, Woodrow Wilson wrote in the August 1923 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, "The world has been made safe for democracy." Four years earlier, Wilson and the other allied leaders had presided over the Treaty of Paris, which they saw as ending the last autocracies of Western civilization and forever enshrining peace and democracy under the League of Nations.

Though Russian democracy never came in his lifetime, nor did U.S. membership in the league, Wilson left office certain that the world's nations had begun an inexorable transformation into democracy. But, Wilson believed, the U.S. had a responsibility to protect that transformation against the forces of "irrational revolution" and despotism, as had prevailed in Russia, that persisted. "That supreme task, which is nothing less that the salvation of civilization, now faces democracy, insistent, imperative. There is no escaping it, unless everything we have built up is presently to fall into ruin about us; and the United States, as the greatest of democracies must undertake it."

Late on Sunday, the New York Times reported that the U.S. is now pushing for the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a repressive dictator and close U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaeda. In the two months since pro-democracy protests began in Yemen, U.S. support for Saleh did not falter even when his police fired on demonstrators, killing dozens. For President Obama, it was an ugly compromise perceived in the U.S. as necessary for national security and abroad as a sign of U.S hypocrisy. After all, how could the U.S. truly be the global beacon of democracy that every president in a century has declared it to be if it props up a man whose decades of rule have been the opposite of all that America supposedly stands for?

From the day that Wilson signed of the 1919 Treaty of Paris, the imperative to defend and guide the spread of democracy has been perhaps the greatest ideological mission of U.S. foreign policy. But while every president after Wilson espoused this idealist dream, each has been stymied by the immediate, realist concerns of his era. First isolationism kept the U.S. uninvolved abroad; then five decades of Cold War led presidents to support any regime, with little concern for its brutality, that could oppose the Soviet Union. Bill Clinton oversaw perhaps the only period in which no economic or security concern overrode Wilson's call, but the catastrophic failure in Somalia led Clinton to humble U.S. foreign policy from early in his presidency.

Since 9/11, fighting what George W. Bush saw as the "global war on terror" has been, rightly or wrongly, the chief concern driving most difficult foreign policy decisions. Democratization, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, perhaps the region least democratic and most in need of democracy in the world, didn't just take a back seat, it was abandoned nearly entirely. This was not for lack of interest -- whatever else his faults, Bush clearly believed strongly in the universal right of democracy and of the exceptional U.S. role in securing that right. But he ultimately chose U.S. security interests - embodied by Hosni Mubarak - over the more idealist desire to democratize Egypt.

Obama, since entering office and especially since the Arab uprisings began in December, has faced many similar choices and has tended toward the same path of predictable, reliable, terrorism-fighting status quo. He declined to seriously push Mubarak for free elections' he looked the other way when Afghan President Hamid Karzai stole reelection; he tolerated and even aided despots like Saleh, deputizing them, as Bush had done, in the war against terror.

Outside of the U.S. and particularly in the Arab press, Obama has been harshly criticized for continuing to support Arab dictators in Yemen and Bahrain for their role in aiding U.S. security. This criticism has made little headway in the U.S. -- except as a means to argue against intervention in Libya -- for the simple reason that most Americans have bought into, or at least understood, the logic that democratization is a great American ideal but that national security is an imperative. Even those arguing for Obama to change policy and promote Arab democracies have done so by arguing that it would be better for national security. Even the idealists, in other words, have shaped their ideals to conform to the all-consuming desire to make the U.S. as safe as possible from terrorists and rogue states.

It may very well be the case that Arab democracies, even if their parliaments come to reflect a popular discontent or outright anger with the U.S., would be more resilient against terrorism and more protective of U.S. security interests than the most pro-American Arab dictator. But the U.S., from September 12, 2001, never made this belief policy; not under Bush and not under Obama. Devotion to the status quo and to the war against terror kept these two very different presidents from fulfilling the dream that Wilson had ingrained in U.S. foreign policy nearly a century earlier, thought it was one that Bush and Obama have spoken of frequently.

That changed with the U.S.'s drastic shift from supporting Saleh's autocratic rule to pushing for his resignation and for the establishment, finally, of a legitimate Yemeni democracy. It is possible that this move will promote U.S. security interests -- after all, Saleh is unpopular and civil war is a risk -- but that was always true. And the reasons to fear that such a political transition could harm U.S. interests have been compelling enough to persuade two vastly different U.S. presidents. Those concerns remains but now, finally, the belief in democracy has become more persuasive.

This doesn't mean that the U.S. counterterrorism mission -- with all its unmanned drones, tens of thousands of troops, untold billions spent on spy programs, and covert warfare campaigns in over a dozen countries -- is going away anytime soon. But with Arab peoples taking their futures into their own hands, the U.S. had to finally and decisively choose between supporting the spread of democracy or standing in its way. In Yemen at least, the U.S. has chosen to no longer make its security subservient to its ideals. Preoccupied with near and far enemies, the U.S. never overcame these fears on its and may never have. We needed, and received, a big push from the democratic idealists -- in Tunisian, in Egypt, in Yemen and Libya and Bahrain -- to get there.

Photo credit: Getty, Library of Congress