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Beyond Our Reach

In the Middle East, both realpolitik and idealism have failed. It’s time to scale back our ambitions.


Egyptian demonstrators tear a huge portrait of President Hosni Mubarak during a protest against his rule in the northern port city of Alexandria on January 25.(AFP/Getty Images)

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.



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.

James Kitfield contributed contributed to this article.

This article appears in the February 5, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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