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.